Corporate responsibility

Stansted Airport moves into education

Stansted Airport has built a college to close the skills gaps of its staff and create a pipeline of potential employees in the local community

The next time you fly from Stansted Airport take a look: next door to the terminal building is an unassuming office block. But it is not staffed by administrators – rather teachers. And its visitors aren’t off on trips abroad – but instead are studying for educational qualifications, including GCSE equivalent English and maths courses.

Stansted Airport, which has been part of the Manchester Airport Group for the last five years, handles 27 million passengers every year travelling to 200 different destinations. More than 12,000 people work at the airport, which is in the district of Uttlesford in Essex, around 40 miles from central London, in roles ranging from pilots and cabin crew, retail services, manning the border controls to cleaning and maintenance.

Some will be highly educated but others may have lower levels of academic achievement. These are the people that the airport’s Employment and Skills Academy is targeting. It has just announced that it is offering free English and Maths GCSE equivalent courses to airport staff – which are also open to local jobseekers.

We are also retaining the staff we have and helping them to enhance their career prospects at the airport

The reasoning for such an initiative is that, while Stansted is the biggest single-site employer in the region, it is in fierce competition with other local employers such as pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca in Cambridge and Tesco’s head office in Bishop’s Stortford.

So, Stansted needs to attract staff – at any one time, there are between 300 and 400 vacancies at the airport – and keep the ones it has got. Offering to educate employees so they can advance their careers – as well as attracting locals looking for work – is one way of doing this. Outside the southeast, the eastern region is the most successful in the UK with an unemployment rate of just three per cent and fewer than 100,000 jobseekers.

Jonathan Oates, corporate affairs director at the airport, says: ‘With our predicted growth over the next ten years we will need to employ a further 5,000 on site. By offering educational programmes we are closing the skills gap. We are also retaining the staff we have and helping them to enhance their career prospects at the airport.’

The English and maths courses are being offered through the on-site Employment and Skills Academy in collaboration with Harlow College. Julien Sample, assistant principal at Harlow College, says that, taking Greater Essex as a whole, 28.1 per cent of the working age population is educated to degree standard or beyond while 31.5 per cent are below level two in educational achievement: that’s below GCSE level.

‘These figures are on par with the national average,’ says Sample. ‘We find that it’s often the English and maths qualifications – the ones you need to progress your career – that people lack, hence the need for this programme.’ The entry level one course is designed to be completed in 12 weeks by students completing three hours of tuition a week, either at the Academy or at home.

Students can then progress to level two – a GCSE equivalent course. When the initiative launched in October, ten employees enrolled on the English course while 12 signed up for maths.

‘I think that as the reputation of the course grows, there will be more take up,’ says Sample. ‘We are flexible how they study. We can’t be rigid as obviously they have to fit in with their shift patterns. We’ve got some employees from the Hilton Hotel taking the course and their manager is keen to help and is allowing them to study during work hours.’

So, what’s in it for the airport? Are the English and maths courses meeting a need because some staff have problems with numeracy and communication? ‘The view we are taking is that we hope the course will help produce an increase in the skills of part of the workforce which will be able to respond better to customer needs,’ says Oates.

Vesela Ivanova, employment and skills manager at Stansted Airport Academy, adds: ‘Staff members already working in roles across the airport, or in other employment in the region, could benefit from developing their skills. We are excited to be able to build people’s confidence in these areas which can be useful in so many aspects of day-to-day life as well as work.’

These courses are the latest part of Stansted’s aim to embrace all generations – and encourage them to work at the airport. ‘We like to say that at Stansted we work with people aged five to 105,’ says Oates. ‘The academy is the final part of the Holy Trinity of three projects. The first is the Aerozone, a half million-pound investment in a standalone facility aimed at five years-plus education. With this, we are giving local schoolchildren a taste of what a career at the airport might be like.

‘Recently, we had an easyJet pilot come and talk to the children about what his job entails. And we’ve had the airport fire crew come in to tell them what they do. It’s all about introducing the idea of a career at the airport to the local children at an early stage of their lives.’

The college is our own home-grown solution to the skills shortage

The second part – described as ‘our piece de resistance’ by Oates – is the new Stansted Airport College. ‘This is an £11 million facility operated with Harlow College on the airport site,’ says Oates. ‘It is the only on-site educational facility of its kind at a British airport.’

About 300 local students, mostly aged between 16 and 18 years, have opted to do their post-school education at the Airport College rather than a traditional sixth form or further education college. These students can take courses towards careers as aircraft engineers, cabin crew and other roles – the college is about to take delivery of a plane for engineering students to learn on.

On graduation, they are in the right place to apply for jobs at the airport. ‘The college is our own home-grown solution to the skills shortage. Our students choose the Airport College rather than other sixth form and further education colleges because they can see that there is a vocation at the end of it: they are studying with the aim of starting a career at the airport,’ says Sample.

The third part is the Academy. In addition to the English and maths courses, Sample says there is a range of courses at the college aimed at local, unemployed people as well as programmes for employees, such as those covering health and safety.

Stansted’s owner Manchester Airport Group (MAG) is in turn two thirds owned by ten Greater Manchester councils, while one third is held by IFM, an Australian investment business. As a private company, MAG generates around £100 million in dividend payments for its local authority owners.

Offering educational courses resonates with these owners as it is an example of helping the communities in which the airport operates. MAG also owns Manchester Airport, Britain’s third busiest airport, and East Midlands. It is hoped that these airports will soon be able to offer similar schemes to their staff and locals. Who knows, maybe in the not-too-distant future airports will be taking care of all generations? Oates adds that there are already several multi-generational families working at Stansted. Maybe the next step will be on-site schools or… maternity services?