East Durham College to receive share of £2.7m pot to boost healthcare skills

In 2019, the government pledged to recruit an additional 50,000 nurses to the NHS by 2024. But what about other roles – like pharmacists and healthcare scientists – which form the ‘hidden backbone’ of the health sector?

A new group has recently secured £2.7 million, from the government’s Strategic Development Fund (SDF) which helps Further Education providers respond to skills needs, to increase healthcare training provision and align it with the needs of employers in the North East.

East Durham College who led on the bid, will receive £900,000, which will enable them to create a new pharma lab, clean room and extend their recently developed mock-hospital ward.

Suzanne Duncan, Principal and CEO, East Durham College – and chair of The North East Regional Health Skills Hub group – explains how this vital funding will help the region’s healthcare sector and jobs.

“The health sector is the biggest employer in the North East and in the UK. Globally, the NHS is the eighth biggest employer – only exceeded by organisations like the US Department of Defence and the People’s Liberation Army of China.

“But we know that a maturing workforce is leading to skills shortages and that both public and private sector health employers are struggling to recruit the people they need.

“And this is by no means limited to the more obvious roles, like the 50,000 nurses that the government has promised. It’s also the many, many behind-the-scenes roles like healthcare scientists, pharmacists and manufacturers which are the backbone of the NHS and our health sector.

“In the North East, we recognised that the needs of the health sector are so great that no one organisation or college can meet them individually – we needed to work collaboratively to solve skills shortages, with a focus on these ‘hidden’ roles.”

To help address this vital issue, 18 months ago, the health and education sectors came together to form the North East Regional Health Skills Hub. The group is made up of a number of further education colleges: Bishop Auckland College, Derwentside College, East Durham College, Gateshead College, New College Durham, Sunderland College and Tyne Coast College along with the University of Sunderland, private training provider Learning Curve Group and Health Education England as well as the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (North East LEP).

Suzanne Duncan added: “The group has a strong relationship with Health Education England – facilitated by the North East LEP – who have shared data with us about the shortages of skilled workers for particular jobs. Thanks to their insight, the hub can pinpoint roles like aseptic pharmacy technicians which are in real demand, and which will continue to be needed in our region in the future.

“It’s all well and good us gathering and sharing this information, but it means nothing if we don’t translate it into action. So, we put in a bid for funding to the Department for Education and succeeded in securing £2.7 million for the region. This is being used to increase our training provision in priority areas, and build college facilities like immersive suites, science manufacturing labs and pharmaceutical spaces.

“Parallel to this we’re working with schools to promote all the careers available across the health sector to pupils. When a young person decides they want to be an engineer, do they realise there are engineering roles in the NHS? And the same goes for the huge number of back-office functions in healthcare, like HR and digital roles. Improved careers advice and guidance will help young people access these opportunities.

“There will also be flexible learning programmes to help people who are already in the workforce upskill. Those progression pathways aren’t currently here in our region – for example, trainees are travelling as far as Cornwall to qualify as audiologists instead of being able to learn closer to home. Not only is this expensive, but for a single parent or someone with caring responsibilities, it’s a huge barrier to them progressing.

“Between now and March 2023 the groundwork will be put in place; people will start to see improved careers guidance in schools from next spring and new T-level and apprenticeship pathways will be on offer from April.

“What impact will all of this have on our region? Young people will be better informed about career opportunities in our biggest-employing sector. Businesses and the NHS in the North East will find it easier to fill vacancies and upskill their staff. And for individuals, not having to travel huge distances for training will open up opportunities to so many more people.

“Our work won’t stop next spring; we will move onto the next set of priorities. We have great education providers in the North East, doing great things for our communities. But now we will achieve so much more by working together.”