Driving employer engagement and apprenticeship success with UNIT-e

Louise Jones, Director of Information and Data Services, explains how they used the flexibility of the UNIT-e solution to develop a college-wide Employer Relationship Management (ERM) system, integrating every element of the employer engagement and apprenticeship process. 

York College is an ‘outstanding’ general FE college in the north of England offering A-levels, vocational courses, apprenticeships, higher education and adult learning courses. Currently, it has over 8,000 students, including 3,200 studying full time, making it the largest education provider for 16-19-year olds in the region.

With over 80 vocational programmes on offer, York College has a strong track record with engaging with employers to secure apprenticeship placements and work-based learning. With colleges each vying for their share of the apprenticeship levy, there has never been a greater need to engage with employers and proficiently manage their needs.

Right person, right time, right message

York College has been using UNIT-e management information system since 2004 so it is well embedded into college life, including the five teams within the Business Development Unit (BDU). In an increasingly competitive sector, York College has clearly identified the need to have an efficient and reliable management system in place to make sure the right information is with the right person at the right time for effective communications to take place when dealing with employers in the private sector.

Louise knew that the flexibility of UNIT-e would ensure it can incorporate all the requirements of each of the teams in the BDU: Employer Engagement, Apprenticeships, Work Placements and Sales along with the Health, Safety and Welfare (HSW) function. “The teams were already seeing an increase in workload and there was just too much data in disparate sites; too much paper and too many points of contact. Ideally, we wanted to consolidate the data held across lots of spreadsheets into a central, interactive repository and have something we could easily run reports from, as well as making the teams’ jobs less stressful.”

Starting from scratch

Following conversations with team leaders within the BDU, Louise scoped the project to build York College’s Employer Relationship Management (ERM) system. Here she explains how: “We started with a huge piece of paper and plotted out what the Employer Engagement team really wanted, where and why, and how it was going to work. From experience, I knew that to get it spot on first time it is so important to think everything through properly from the outset. It also gave the teams time to analyse and re-evaluate their own process, highlighting further areas where they could become more customer focused and efficient.”

Using her Information Interface (II) skills, Louise explains, “We started building our ERM with a requirement for 10 screens. We started the initial design using the ‘out-of-the-box’ tables. Combined with the use of custom fields and UNIT-e Report Generator, I could use querying to help the teams understand how the screens and processes all linked together to form a complete system. We became truly agile — we would develop a screen required, pass it around for feedback, develop it some more, pass it around for feedback again then release to everyone. Information Interface really does make it that easy. It’s an excellent product and really speaks for itself,” comments Louise.

Laura Blissett, Team Leader for Business Sales at York College, describes their situation: “The main aim was to limit the amount of communications from across the college going out to employers. It just wasn’t very good or joined up. Now we have greater consistency and transparency across the whole process and throughout the team; everyone knows where they are. By using the ‘Communications’ tab in the ERM, we all now know when any contact is made with a specific employer and who made it, so we don’t end up repeating ourselves or chasing unnecessarily. For us, the whole thing is about making everything smoother for our employers.”

Expanding the build and reach Following conversations between the Employer Engagement Manager and Louise, the right screens, workflows and reports were built, and Laura quickly got to grips with the new ERM. Laura explains, “I was shown it to have a look through and to understand how it would work and influence my day-to-day tasks. Once we started using it, we could see where things could be tweaked, and these improvements were made quickly by Louise. We were also able to see how it could be rolled out further throughout the BDU to integrate all of our department.”

The team also spent a few days training focusing on Information Interface and Report Generator so they could develop further fields, screens and automated reporting. Louise explains, “I’ve been lucky enough to build up great skills using Information Interface and Report Generator and was only happy to pass my knowledge onto others, especially those who would not have considered themselves ‘techy’ before using UNIT-e, II and Report Generator.”

Laura adds, “It’s great compared to what we had before and so easy to use. We’ve only had to spend short amounts of time training other team members.

“We have a ‘Vacancies’ tab now, and we’re working with the Admissions and Enrolments team to ensure all new apprentice applications are input into the UNIT-e ERM,” Laura adds. “Once these applicants have enrolled, we can approach them to see if they already have employment. If not, we can then match them with the employer vacancy in the system. And this record integrates with the UNIT-e learner record too.”

Following an apprentice securing a work-based placement, the ERM’s workflow passes the record onto the HSW team alerting them to take the next step in the process. David Jackson, Health and Safety Advisory Manager, explains, “We receive the notification then contact the employer to make an appointment for the HSW team to visit and assess the workplace. Previously, we were working from multiple files and paper records, and all contacting the same employers and asking the same questions, which didn’t present the best image of the college.

“The more the team and I use it, the more we want to use it. We’ve all got much better at record keeping and we’re working much smarter. We can attach all the relevant checks and documents, so everyone is in the ‘know’. Having everything together in one place on this system has helped an awful lot. There are no more complex spreadsheets locked to just one user. Now it’s very, very simple for all teams to understand and maintain.”

Better data, greater insight

Every element of York College’s employer engagement and apprenticeship process now integrates with each other and all are fully embedded within the ERM; from initial enquiry and apprentice applications through to invoicing and contract renewals, all processes are handled through the ERM and UNIT-e. But it’s when the teams combine the ERM with UNIT-e Report Generator that the power of the system really comes alive.

“With ERM, we can report on all and any aspect of our function. For instance, we can report on the amount of income each team and the BDU as a whole is generating — it’s really insightful and we can see that we’re getting a lot of repeat business,” Laura reports.

“We can see where we are with each employer and the progress of their contract. It’s even allowing us to run automated reports on when contracts from employers need to be returned so we’re not constantly searching through paper files for important dates. You can use it for exactly what you need; you can report precisely on what people are asking for quickly and easily. We know now that we are faster and better informed.”

Further elements to the original scope were to ensure that accurate and timely invoicing can be undertaken without any hassle. Combined with UNIT-e, the ERM allows York College to swiftly invoice their customers making sure they are receiving the income due and resulting in improved accounting and more accurate forecasting. And, of course, there’s the ubiquitous GDPR element: the way York College was storing its customer data was not going to stand up to the regulation once it came into effect. Placing data in a secure, centralised database with stored preferences ensured York College was compliant when GDPR came into effect.

What does the future hold?

For the HSW team, plans are already afoot with work taking place on developing further reports and features. “We’d like to set up reports notifying us to conduct checks with employers on the right basis dependent on risk in that workplace,” David comments. “Eventually, once our HSW advisers are kitted up with the right devices, we would like to have onsite assessments taking place in real time out in the field that feed directly into the ERM. This would eliminate any need for any manual data inputting when they’re back in the office.”

The insight that the teams have gleaned with detailed reporting functionality of UNIT-e shows the value they have found with the system, and they are keen to extend this further. Louise adds, “We are looking to swap out our current management reporting software and invest in UNIT-e Management Advantage.”