Building opportunity in Belfast

Aidan Sloane, Chief Executive of Springvale Learning talks about the importance of social inclusion and employment opportunities in Northern Ireland

20 June 2013 / Be the first to comment

Based in west Belfast, Springvale Learning has been providing vocational learning to an average of 1000 adults and young people every week for 17 years. In his new role as Chief Executive, Aidan Sloane speaks out about the importance of social inclusion and employment opportunities in Northern Ireland.

Our strategic priority is to put our learners at the centre of everything we do. Our community in west Belfast is one of the highest areas of deprivation in Northern Ireland, and it is critical to us that we maintain a structure that allows us to deliver on our ethos of social inclusion. Everybody that comes through our door, whether from a work programme, long-term unemployed or just out of school, gets the ‘gold standard’ of service from our courses, and eventually a qualification, apprenticeship or full-time employment.

By 2020, 80 per cent of the current workforce will still be in work. There is a clear need to transform and develop the skills of people currently in work and the opportunities available to retrain or develop their skills. Managing this effectively will be critical for economic development in Northern Ireland, so Springvale Learning needs to develop its higher-level qualifications in order to find a balance between youth unemployment provision and training for long-term unemployed across all age brackets.

The academic or traditional pathways are not the answer for everyone. For us, it is mandatory that we focus on the solutions to youth unemployment, and the only answer is more skills provision, higher levels of training and a viable alternative to going to college or university. This means more apprenticeships and more vocational learning providers.

The Minister for Employment and Skills has called for a complete review of apprenticeships and youth training in Northern Ireland. We need this to re-evaluate our skills strategy so we can fix our economic problems for the future, both in Northern Ireland and the UK. We are strong advocates of the Minister’s plans and to us it sounds like a really strong endorsement of apprenticeships. The key thing is advertising and communication among training providers, learners and employers of the different opportunities and pathways available.

Springvale Learning engages with 2500 employers over the course of an 18 to 24-month course. There is a strong appetite from local businesses to have a working relationship with our organisation. Employer engagement is absolutely critical to delivering increased employment opportunities and we are putting in measures to develop a range of approaches, from upskilling learners to getting people into entry-level apprenticeships. We’re trying to equip people with the employability skills they need to move forward, and this requires a connected relationship with employers.

We play a critical role in the development strategy of Northern Ireland’s commitment to vocational education. Two years ago we had around 200 learners in apprenticeships; this year we’re approaching 750 apprentices in the Belfast market. We have a bank of around 1250 employers we appeal to in order to get people from Springvale Learning into apprenticeships, and over the past three years we have delivered more than 1100 sustained employment opportunities to our learners. I am a strong advocate of the idea that skills focus is the key to long-lasting employment – it’s satisfying and beneficial for the apprentice, the employer and also for us as a company.

Our learners welcome the strong brand recognition that comes from our partnership with City & Guilds. City & Guilds is seen as at the forefront of vocational training, which is something our learners recognise. Our management team is constantly committed to making sure that the qualifications we offer are both relevant to our learners here in Belfast and also flexible in order to offer people a choice. For us, it has been an effective partnership, made clear by the direct similarities in our mission statements: delivering quality learning and enhancing lives through education.

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