Ian Pretty, Chief Executive of Collab Group

The economic impact of covid-19 may have a sting in the tail. In the immediate aftermath of the covid-19 crisis, it seemed that we might be heading towards a great depression economy. Unemployment could soar to 10-12% supply chains would seize up, and a full-scale financial crisis could be triggered. But events have not entirely played out like this.

In the UK, an aggregation of economic forecasts by the Treasury estimates that UK unemployment will peak at about 7.5% in 2021, supply chains have shown remarkable nimbleness, and in November 2020, the FTSE 100 index had its best month since 1989. 

Yet, these facts do not conceal the reality the UK economy has been decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, recently spoke about the dangers that large swathes of the country could be condemned to long term unemployment, leaving scarring on the economy for years to come. 

The full impact of the pandemic won’t be fully understood until months, even years from now. The response to these challenges will require short term pragmatism, as the Government has demonstrated through the Job Retention Scheme, combined with longer-term sustainable initiatives to support people back into work. 

We contend that both on the short and long-term interventions colleges will have a crucial role to play. Last week, we published a report: “Colleges Supporting Economic Recovery”.

The report set out three key areas where we think colleges can support people back into work:

  1. The establishment of Skills and jobs hubs
  2. The delivery of an enhanced training and upskilling offer
  3. Job placement and employment-related support

The establishment of Skills and jobs hubs

The first of these concepts centres around what we term “Skills and jobs hubs.” Colleges are already doing a considerable amount to help people get back into work through the provision of employability skills support and retraining programmes. Still, we argue that more can be done to leverage the capabilities of colleges at scale and to more significant effect. 

In his statement last week, the Chancellor put forward a range of new spending commitments including £2.9 billion for the Restart scheme and £1.4 billion in extra support for Jobcentre Plus. The scale of the commitments underscores the grim reality that the current labour market is a world away from where it was even a year ago today. Many people find themselves out of work that may never have been unemployed before.

This week, the collapse of the Arcadia Group and Debenhams underscores that the pandemic has excessively impacted sectors like retail. So how best to help those in sectors like retail to find new, sustainable, well-paid work quickly?

We argue that part of the answer lies in a service that is accessible, comprehensive, and rooted in local communities - this is where the concept of skills and jobs come in.

The key premise of skills and jobs hubs is that colleges are uniquely placed to assist the work of DWP and JCP locally in two important respects:

  1. Firstly, to utilise their estates to help increase the service capacity of local Jobcentres. and
  2. Secondly, to increase the pool of college-based employability practitioners to engage with and advise prospective job seekers and supplement the activities of DWP work coaches. 

Skills and Jobs” hubs would be “pop up” centres where local populations could access a range of advice and support services to support them into employment. Colleges would rent out their space to local JCPs to provide a community-based hub in which DWP work coaches could provide employment support services directly from college campuses.

Through this model, local JCP Pluses can leverage the physical estates of colleges and increase the capacity of services. Colleges are often located in central community hubs and provide a welcoming and familiar environment. This aspect could be crucial for young people who may not have much interaction with their local Job Centres or those who are looking for work after a prolonged period in employment.

The basic proposition for what colleges can offer through these hubs consist of:

  1. Tailored careers information, advice and guidance support 
  2. Employability skills support
  3. Skills triage and diagnostic services
  4. Job matching or signposting to training opportunities

The delivery of an enhanced training and upskilling offer

As stated, skills and jobs hubs provide a model to not only leverage college estates but also to access the embedded expertise and specialist knowledge of further education college staff. One model that could be implemented could see campus-based work coaches refer JCP clients to college-based employability and careers support services.

Such support could consist of personalised support and mentoring to help individuals conceptualise the skills they have, provide basic employability training, support for CV writing and interview preparation skills and - where relevant - signposting to training and upskilling programmes. 

Job placement and employment-related support

Additionally, many colleges have employability programmes where they can draw upon the expertise of college-based work coaches who can provide additional coaching and career mentoring services. Such services could include the development of individual learning plans, the provision of 1:1 mentoring support and the production of achievement portfolios. 

An obvious limiting factor could be the extent of college space available across various college estates. It is likely that requirements around social distancing will be in place for the foreseeable future, and so excess space cannot be utilised to its fullest extent. However, there is little doubt that many Collab Group colleges do have additional space, but the scale of this additional capacity will vary significantly between colleges. 

We think the Skills and jobs hubs model has purchase because it is an initiative that could be deployed rapidly and to significant effect. We know already, for example, that many colleges are working to implement Youth Hubs to help 16-24-year-old job seekers find work. These initiatives are crucial, but the model for skills and jobs hubs reflects the fact that employment support needs to be accessible to varied cohorts of jobseekers.

Ian Pretty, Chief Executive of Collab Group

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