Comments from Sue Dawson, Programmes and Relationship Manager at Calderdale College, which oversees the Skills Support for the Workforce (SSW) programme in the Tees Valley region.

Nationally, almost one quarter of all businesses temporarily closed or paused trading due to the pandemic in April 2020, with Tees Valley’s GDP falling by up to £2bn as a result.[1] The recent national lockdown forced many businesses to temporarily close again, causing further economic uncertainty, emphasising the need to upskill workforces in Tees Valley to make sure that we’re prepared for the future, especially as we are now facing a phased return out of lockdown.

I work with small and medium businesses across the region and have heard first-hand about the difficulties that they have faced during the pandemic. From manufacturing companies having to work around social distancing restrictions, to restaurants needing to introduce alternative revenue streams such as dine-at-home options – Covid.19 created challenges for businesses across all sectors. Alongside this, business owners have struggled to keep staff morale high, as the pandemic has had a negative impact on many people’s mental health.

It has been a particularly worrying time for businesses who have just started out, or who may not have had the finances available to support them long-term. Taking advantage of skills training can help, as it gives these businesses the opportunity to access support at a time when they might be unsure on the steps to take to help rebuild and recover their business. By exploring the different options available to them with expert training providers, they can feel more confident in the decisions they take.

Business owners have a lot on their plates right now, so training might not be high on their agendas, but there really is no better time to consider how they can make your business more resilient and prepared.

What’s more, there is plenty of support to take advantage of, including our Skills Support for the Workforce (SSW) programme, which is available to small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) looking to upskill their staff and is free through funding from the European Social Fund (ESF) and the Education and Skills Funding Agency.

But why is skills training so important? Due to the lockdown, many businesses were unable to operate as they usually would and were unsure of how they could adapt to these changes or unlock additional revenue streams. That’s why the training offered by SSW has been designed to help employers understand how to diversify and expand their services to combat the economic impact of the pandemic, so that they can become more resilient in the future.

As well as struggling with temporary closures, we saw many businesses go through restructuring, with staff at risk of redundancy. In May 2020, it was estimated that up to 15,000 of the currently furloughed workers in the Tees Valley were expected to be made redundant by the end of 2020.[2] By upskilling staff, employers might be able to avoid redundancies: teaching employees new skills means that they will be able to support the business in more ways, avoiding the risk of their roles becoming redundant.

A benefit of skills training that I feel most passionate about, especially given the pandemic, is the boost it brings to staff in terms of their confidence, motivation and general happiness. One business who has seen first-hand the impact that training can have on staff morale is R C Ayres, a Middlesbrough-based construction business providing building and roofing services.

Office Manager Kim Hall initially looked into training as a way of helping to maintain the business’s excellent reputation, but one of the most significant outcomes she noticed was how staff felt much more at ease at work.

On her experience of the training, Kim said: “Making an investment in our employees and their skills has helped to boost the team’s confidence. Not only are they more comfortable in what they are doing, they also feel much more valued by the business because we’ve invested in them. Our clients can certainly notice this and we’re always receiving compliments and praise for the attitude and expertise of our staff.”

I repeatedly hear “I don’t have the time to train”, or “skills training is too expensive”. SSW has been designed with these challenges in mind: training is flexed around businesses’ operating hours and rotas, meaning that owners don’t have to worry about losing revenue by pausing their operations, and it’s completely free. We’ve even adapted our courses so that some can be taken online, if staff are shielding or prefer to continue working from home.

Though many employers will be feeling anxious about what the future holds, skills training offers them an opportunity to take control of their future, invest in their employees and put their best foot forward as we begin to come out of lockdown.

To find out more information and register for a free skills assessment, please visit: https://ssw.fundingunit.org.uk/areas/tees-valley/.

[1] https://teesvalley-ca.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Tees-Valley-Economic-Assessment-2020.pdf, p.43.

[2]  https://teesvalley-ca.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Tees-Valley-Economic-Assessment-2020.pdf, p.122.