Shulah Jones came up with the idea of Hugh Baird College’s Port Academy Liverpool in 2014, just a few months after she started working at the college with a brief to develop its business offer to meet the demands of a rapidly growing and rejuvenated Liverpool City Region
Why and how did you become a head of business strategy?
After completing my Master’s degree at university I’d gained a place at Cambridge to do a PhD in archaeology, couldn’t get sufficient funding to start, and so found myself thrown totally unprepared onto the jobs market. Fortunately, I got a front-of-house job with National Museums Liverpool and worked my way up the organisation into marketing and the boardroom. I left as a chartered marketer seven years later to take up various roles promoting the region as a business, tourist and cultural centre and eventually working as a business management consultant.
Then in 2013, Hugh Baird College asked me to draw up a business case to meet the need for maritime skills provision brought on by port operator Peel Ports’ newly announced £400m investment in a new deepwater container terminal - literally on the college’s doorstep.
Within 12 months, after consulting numerous maritime sector businesses, organisations and HE institutions, I conceived the idea of our Port Academy Liverpool, aimed at promoting three main career paths: onboard - the growing cruise liner industry and hospitality; onshore - most maritime jobs are shore-based and are part of the whole supply chain inked to key areas such as port logistics; and offshore (wind farms) - a sector offering handsome rewards to trades such as electricians and painters/decorators working on the turbines rather than, say, domestic houses. Since 2014 I have been the college’s full-time head of business strategy. 2016 saw the opening of both the new port facility and Port Academy Liverpool.
What’s your main role in the college's growth strategy?
My day job is leading on external engagement and partnerships but I also teach ad hoc as a business practitioner for up to 10 hours a month and support and encourage colleagues through generating industry insights. Some 60-70% of my time is spent off-campus, giving presentations to businesses, networking and attending events. I am constantly forging external links with industry, highlighting suitable employers and organisations able to help the college hone its skills offer and making constant use of my book of contacts built up over 20 years of industry working. It’s looking at what is out there, digesting it and bringing it back to the college to inform its direction and curriculum.
What helped you adapt from an industrial to a teaching environment in FE?
As a postgraduate, I briefly taught at Liverpool University in the 1990s so I had some teaching experience - and as a marketer, I am used to delivering pitches and talking to clients. I qualified to teach HE last year at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) and taught a number of modules pretty much full-time at LJMU’s Business School before joining the college.
What’s the FE element you like most about the job?
I’ve never taught in FE before - it’s vocational rather than purely research-driven as at university - but I love engaging with my students at a much deeper level and with a lot more contact than in HE. Also, our college is in a deprived area … and it’s got me thinking differently about how education can shape young people’s lives.
Most of our students are local and a high percentage come from socially deprived backgrounds. I enjoy scene-setting and story-telling in FE to excite and engage students from an academic perspective. Rather than just presenting facts and asking students to make decisions on those, I relish the idea of telling a plethora of fantastic stories about seafarers in the maritime sector and where they have come from and inspiring students through that.
What’s your typical day as head of strategic planning in your college?
From 8-10 am I often attend breakfast meetings with employers, and am then in and out of my office all day depending on meetings, and maybe out at evening events with policymakers and politicians. I often work long days, but it’s never a problem as I love meeting so many interesting people from different backgrounds. Sandwiched between networking and industry engagements can be work researching sectoral activities or meeting with my college peers to challenge and promote the role and impact of the work we deliver on the economic growth of our region.
What grabs your students’ attention most?
We try to make learning exciting and set students on a route to really inspiring careers. My current focus is with the digital and creative industries. There are many new roles around AI, cognitive computing, cloud technology, VR and AR in the Liverpool region, which is a hotbed for creative developments in technology. We seek new staff in these areas and are talking with several businesses that come into college to help us plug any gaps in our curriculum provision.
We also seek investment to make active spaces for people to set up their own digital startups - we’ve recently worked with ‘Innovate Her’ - an employer engagement programme introducing some 100 14- to 16-year-old female students to digital businesses, including coding, and asking them to respond to a live brief looking at ‘tech for good’ in areas such as healthcare. We are the only ‘career college’ in our region - students start with us aged 14.
What is the hardest part of your job as head of business strategy?
Timescales. As an ‘outsider’ I’ve had to quickly appreciate that industry needs cannot be translated into new curriculums as quickly as I thought. It takes time and I believe this is why industry sometimes sees us as not responsive enough. The challenge is how to manage employer expectations.
Any achievement you are particularly proud of?
Aside from Port Academy Liverpool, we are currently pooling a panel of influential female speakers under the title ‘Inspiring Women’ for our celebration of International Women’s Day, which is aimed at exposing our students to the positive impact women can have on society and industry. Back in 2015 we also secured £2.5m in funding from our local enterprise partnership to invest in Port Academy Liverpool and more recently more than £3m for a new mental health centre. Also, last July we published three new apprenticeship standards in the marine sector after three years of collaboration with industry - something that really enhances our reputation.
What personal qualities and skills do you need to grow a college campus?
A passion for people, place and productivity, which provides the bedrock of economic development, and a thirst to be up to date on the news. I read an awful lot, devouring the news through shows like Question Time and Radio 4’s Today Programme
What are the training and qualifications to become FE's business strategy head?
The minimum is a degree to show credibility as a practitioner and this has to be backed up by industry experience. Professional business qualifications are also important such as those from the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) and Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM). Being qualified and part of a professional body helps you stay up to date via access to knowledge, current thinking and fellow practitioners. Becoming a chartered marketer has led to my appointment as a fellow of three professional bodies – CIM, CMI and the Higher Education Academy. This has enhanced my contact database - and occasionally I wear the letters after my name as a badge of honour when having to make myself heard as a woman in business.
What spurs you on to work each day
Knowing some of the students we support may become key influencers of the future - and I may be coming to them for a job!
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