Rachel Topliss, head of employer academy partnerships and work-related activity at The Sheffield College, tells Jill Theobald how her shared vision with Sheffield Chamber of Commerce then President Steve Manley of boosting the workforce of tomorrow’s employability skills led to the creation of the college’s Business and Enterprise Academy – and how the employer-led academies programme is now putting them and the city ahead of the curve nationally
‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it’.
This mantra is one that Rachel Topliss head of employer academy partnerships, and work-related activity at The Sheffield College, uses often during our interview – and it’s not hard to see why.
It played a major part in her vision for the College’s employer skills academies to inspire, encourage and support young people with the skills that businesses need by providing real-life examples of role models and successful businesspeople.
And indeed, two years on from launch of the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce Business and Enterprise Academy at the College, that vision has become a reality.
Within three months 900 students had signed up to the academy – that has since gone on to hit a milestone of 1,500.
Rachel’s goal of three academies has become 15 including the Business and Enterprise Academy and academies involving leading businesses Discovery STEM Education, Greene King, Kier Construction, Kryolan, Liberty Speciality Steels, Millgate, MSK Ingredients, NextGen Skills Academy, PJ Taste, Sheffield Sharks, Uniheads and WANdisco.
The college has received Association of Colleges Beacon Awards’ commended status for engagement of employers as a result of its academies.
Oh, and earlier this year the Government published a Skills for Jobs White Paper which focuses on the ‘vital role of further education (FE) colleges being at the forefront of a skills led recovery and ensuring employers are at the heart’. The Sheffield College’s academies are a forerunner – not least because the Business and Enterprise Academy was the first time a British Chamber of Commerce had worked with a further education college in this way.
Rachel says they were ‘blown away’ by the White Paper and while the college was not named its recommendations for other chambers and colleges nationwide to follow suit means ‘we have set the precedent now. It rubberstamped our ideas and our vision of what we could do to make the college special.’
Keeping The Sheffield College and the city ahead of the learning and employability curve then – especially as Rachel believes that, thanks to the academies and the support from businesses the college is now, she would estimate, three years ahead of others in the country.
But she is keen to point out that it is down to her dynamic team – and the academies being ‘driven’ by a supportive Chamber and business community.
“The Sheffield College feels so different to any of the other places I’ve worked in such a positive way,” she says. “The businesses and the sense of community, the people’s work ethic and their spirit – I wish I’d gone to work in Sheffield and the area a long time ago because it’s a fantastic place to be and got a real buzz about it and that’s evident with what we’ve set up with the academies.”
Rachel’s passion stems from her first role after leaving school as overseas operations manager for Thomson Holidays, now TUI, which was ‘very glamourous flying round the world every week’, but at a young age it ‘wasn’t all sandcastles and sangria’. Dealing with serious trauma such as a plane crash on mainland Spain was mentally and emotionally challenging but helped her build her resilience, as well as transferable skills.
She was ‘not necessarily shy but not as confident as other staff’ but grew in confidence thanks to a combination of watching and learning other staff whose skills impressed her and a dynamic businesswoman mentor – in other words, other real-life role models, just like at the academies.
“I learned everything from my mentor and that’s when I thought I need to help other people. I wouldn’t want people to struggle like I did when I thought ‘I can do that’ and then suddenly in middle of something and you’re not resilient or confident.”
Ultimately, Rachel started training and mentoring other managers and became the youngest ever manager for the company at the time aged 22.
“Everything I learned from a corporate company worldwide has transferred into everything else. It’s about determination – I wanted that lifestyle, but I needed to learn how to get there. One of the things I feel strongly about at the college is the ethos of ‘careers not courses’ so my team will ask them what career do you want – apprenticeship, full-time job or university or higher education – and we work back from there and create a bespoke plan for them.”
Which leads us nicely into the academies and The Sheffield College’s pioneering approach.
“When we started looking at what could we do as a team to make the college unique, special, to make employer interaction meaningful – that’s when we came up with the idea of the academy brand.
“In the first year I thought we’d be really successful if we opened three – and we ended up doing 12! WANdisco was our first, then Millgate and then we met Steve Manley.”
The Sheffield business community was ‘so welcoming, almost like it was a business friendship straight away. Everyone wanted to work together, everyone wanted to help everyone else’, says Rachel, adding:
“When I met Steve, it was really evident within five minutes that what he wanted to do for the Chamber while he was president was exactly the same vision I had.
“We talked about about his vision, and how I wanted the academy to look like a lecture theatre, so it was more like a university environment, and Steve was very keen for Chamber members to get involved so at the time we had 978 members – every business across the city, every sector, small and large, so it was a great spread for us to start building the academy.”
And after Rachel spoke about the academies at the Chamber annual dinner ‘everything went crazy – everyone wanted to get involved which was great!’
“Some employers wanted to dip their toe in with work placements or guest speaking. Others wanted an academy. It was like a snowball which kept going and it was very hard work – it was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my working career, but so worth it because it’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve done. When you’re working on a project you’re passionate about you can’t stop and you can see how amazing it’s going to be!”
“Steve is very passionate about what we’ve done. He used to go to The Sheffield College, and he set up his own business because he took part in Young Enterprise and is where he is today, so he was very keen to give back. He’s had that experience so when he’s delivering workshops or mentoring students, it’s real because he’s done it.”
Rachel is keen to turn the spotlight, too, on other academy stakeholders including Louisa Harrison-Walker of Benchmark and Sheffield Chamber, City Taxis’ Arnie Singh and unLTD columnist Helen Williams of Helping Entrepreneurs Win (read more about Helen’s work with the college in her feature from page 16).
“We’ve got a really nice mix in Sheffield of corporate companies and SMEs and international companies and some really great personalities at the forefront of those businesses – people like Louisa who is all about collaboration and I think that really helps because behaviour breeds behaviour and that helps us get people on board.
“I always say ‘if you can’t see it you can’t be it’ so if young people in the community don’t have a role model but want to set up their own business and are wondering if they can they need to build confidence and resilience. They need to see people from their city that have made it as a success – Arnie Singh, he’s young, really relatable and students love him because he’s from Sheffield, he’s built his business and is still here and giving back.
“Helen Williams ran a confidence and resilience workshop, and we can hold 100 people in our lecture theatre – we had to turn staff away and Helen ended up coming back three times because it was that popular!
“To have key stakeholders is an exceptional experience, it really is magical to see how different the students are.”
And Rachel wants to hear from more employers, too.
The message to employers is that the main investment is sharing their time and expertise,” she says. “And whether it’s a day’s work experience, a year’s placement, or a few projects or they want to speak to the Chamber academy – it doesn’t matter, because the more employers we can get involved the more we can help fill the skills gap.
“Now that we’re leading the way with our employer academies, we need to stay front and centre. Without the employers driving that with myself and doing it together it wouldn’t have that buzz and be magical and I can’t stress enough how unique it is because of those employers. They own our academies! I want businesses in Sheffield to see that and say ‘that’s our college and those are our academies and I want to be involved’ because they need to own that as well – we’re all responsible for our workforce.
“We’re all in it together, particularly now under the pandemic and with business recovery. I’ve really felt the business community and the work the Chamber have been doing have really pulled together – we’re a team, it’s not about them and us, it’s about what we collectively do together.
“If a business has ideas of doing something different or special, I welcome them because we can’t not stay out in front now – we’ve got to do it for the city, we’ve got to do it for the north!”
Bitesize learning lessons
“We’ve launched a new programme called Start-up for students with an interest in becoming self-employed because this is going to be a massive growth area.
“The sessions are managed by us under the academy brand and delivered by external speakers in areas like marketing, sales, procurement, mental health, resilience…
“After 10 weeks they get a business mentor for three weeks and can apply for the Twinkl scholarship programme. This is launching in March and going to be a Dragons Den-type set up where they pitch their business plan and can potentially be sponsored by Twinkl to set up. Not only will they win the money, but they’ve got mentors like (Twinkl chief operating officer) David Angrave – that is a priceless prize.”
“We’re also launching in March a virtual reality (VR) placement platform with interactive voice overs and guest speaker talks so students can experience what it’s like to go on placement at businesses.
“It’s absolutely incredible, I had a vision of what I wanted it to look like and it has completely exceeded that.
“I can’t take credit for this, it is absolutely my team’s work and am keen for us to build on the VR platform this year because that’s going to be huge.”
Skills gaps and skills growth
“When we started everyone had the same sorts of issues across industries such as ageing workforce. We need to be raising those pathways because if no one goes into a sector, it will die.
“Another big area was digital – businesses’ website needed a refresh or they didn’t have one or didn’t use social media. Our young people know absolutely everything about being innovative with your media profile.
“Recently people are talking about carbon footprint and CSR – we’re seeing more jobs that weren’t there two years ago.
“The biggest thing now will be innovation – young people either with change management ideas or setting up as self-employed.”
Springing back from COVID
“The academies have become more crucial through the pandemic and spring-boarded because we were already doing virtual webinars and pre-recorded workshops.
“The only thing that’s changed is students aren’t physically in the academy branded spaces, they’re at home, but still completely committed to those employer sponsors. That’s really evident in our data because we have a 97 per cent retention rate.”
“If anything, they’ve thrived, and my team have been able to launch things like the virtual placements, but we couldn’t have done that without the academy brand. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”