After an incredibly long day’s travelling (Seattle is eight hours behind UK time), the seven of us (eight, including Chris from British Council Wales who will be with us for the first half of the visit) finally arrived in Seattle.
Although we have an action-packed week of visits to colleges, employers and policy-makers lined up – today (Sunday) was actually a free day to explore. The weather was a bit cold and rainy but that didn’t deter us. Amongst the range of sights we covered between us all were Pike Place Market (everything from fish to enormous crabs, to hats and chocolates), the ‘Space Needle’, a museum about music and pop culture, the first ever branch of Starbucks, and, on local recommendation, the Crumpet Shop, which was my personal favourite.
What we found most striking was the similarities between the issues facing Wales and the problems identified by organisations like the Association of Washington Business. Challenges such as an ageing population; how to ensure that all parts of the health profession have sufficient staff; businesses not being able to find staff with the right skills; the need to improve employability and develop a culture of life-long learning; how to address infrastructure; all these are familiar to anyone acquainted with the economy of Wales. Skills gaps in Seattle in ‘Global Trade and Supply Chain Management’ alone range from technical writing and management to truck drivers and dock workers. The lack of awareness of the full range of career options available is something that is not well understood by learners or staff and this is an issue frequently raised in Wales too.
In the evening, we met Jenna from the British Council as part of a welcome dinner. We ate in the ‘Cougar Room’, a private dining room with a stuffed cougar in a glass case, and is a room where mafia discussions are alleged to have taken place. It certainly added something to the atmosphere!
We talked through the objectives for our visit and the programme for the week, concentrating particularly on the first day where we’ll be visiting the Seattle College District, Ada Developer’s Academy (an intensive software development training programme for women), the Headquarters of Amazon, as well as meeting the Economic Development Council of Seattle and King County. We discussed what – if anything – employers and educators might know about Wales, what we might be able to learn about engagement with employers (large and small), curriculum design and how Seattle takes account of employer needs, the challenges of ensuring that what is taught in Further Education settings is what employers really want, and a range of other issues. Jenna assured us that the people we’ll be meeting will have as many questions for us as we’ll have for them. Fortunately, our delegation has a huge amount of knowledge and experience of the detail and complexity of the Further Education sector in Wales, as well as the economy more widely. The opportunity to see and discuss how Seattle addresses challenges that Wales also faces is hugely important and we’re all really keen to learn from the week ahead but, just as importantly, to put into practice what we’ve seen and heard wherever possible, share this knowledge and influence policy development in Wales.
The discussions over the coming week will range from strategic and technical to the more ‘mundane’ or foundational economy. We all noticed that customer service had been of an extremely high standard everywhere we had visited, for instance, and we talked about the skills, training and attitudes needed for this. This was an issue none of us had identified as part of the preparation for the visit to Seattle but could be applied to Wales.
As well as having some fantastic food, the evening was good fun. The person who sat at the head of the table (in front of the stuffed cougar, and who shall, for the purposes of this blog, remain unidentified), achieved the nickname ‘Don Cougar’, in the mafia fashion. Whether this sticks for the rest of the week remains to be seen!
No blog would be complete without some sort of pun so to end, I’m really hoping jetlag doesn’t leave me sleepless in Seattle…..
Day 1 – Team #InnovateFE