What have we seen?
I think most people will be pretty clear on this – the biggest challenge has been uncertainty. The world and landscape has changed SO much in the past 2 months that many would struggle to remember everything that we have been through and the different stages. Government has moved quickly on many things during this period but it has still led to much uncertainty and confusion to employers and hence learners and training providers! This lack of certainty has obviously made dealing with the situation difficult – not knowing whether employers would place learners on breaks, whether learners could learn on furlough, what financial support was available from DfE, HMT and Banks, what Government decisions would be about length of furlough, shutting businesses and so many other things….
So, how have we reacted?
Our Vision at Babington is Developing Better Futures. At the beginning of this whole crisis, we really focused on that vision and the opportunity we saw to make a difference. We knew that the first thing was for us to ensure we remained stable and viable for the future and would be around for the long term – as otherwise, we weren’t going to be able to develop anyone’s future! We have had an absolute focus on 3 things during this really difficult time – Our Staff, Our Learners and Our Customers
We have been open and transparent as a senior leadership team. We have discussed the challenges and the solutions with the whole business wherever possible and talked about how we are all in it together and will get through it together. We have been as visible as we can be and if anything have become even closer to the business and the teams. We started holding daily 30 min “Coffee and Chat” video call sessions with the entire business to update them on what we knew, what we were doing and how it affected them. In these times the main question that people want to know is “Is my job safe?” and we have done everything we can to make that possible. Our aim was to treat everyone as fairly and equally as possible. This is not to say that we haven’t had to make some difficult decisions as a business particularly around people and roles that were due to come into the business in the future – all things that we didn’t want to have to do but the key was reacting quickly to the challenges we faced. At the beginning, these calls were attended daily by well over 2/3rds of the business and questions were asked and answered for people to get comfortable. As things have progressed we have changed some of the focus of these sessions to celebrate success and achievements, develop our culture as a business and develop people in their thinking – but most importantly we have stayed connected and kept the communication personal – it even includes a Friday video session of “Fitness with the Marshes” led by my wife and supported by our 1 year old!
We have worked hard to keep them informed and communicated with. Right from the start we believed the best thing for our learners was to keep them on programme, motivated and supported and in the main we have been able to do this. This has meant that our teams have been able to support their learners through much of this difficult time and give advice and support on things well beyond their apprenticeship or learning programme. We have quickly increased the amount of virtual training that we were delivering, we already had the platforms and systems in place but have now moved all of the learning online and this has been received incredibly positively by the learners. We have also focused on safeguarding and supporting learners with mental health, anxiety and other challenges they have faced – particularly if their own line manager has been furloughed or their employer hasn’t been particularly supportive – at times our teams have been very much on the front line of response to this pandemic – both in terms of Health and supporting the economic recovery in the future!
Our diversity in sectors and programmes has really allowed us to be flexible and react to market needs and requirements. We have seen some sectors more significantly affected than others and some programme areas more affected. Particularly hard hit has been our new entrant programmes where we saw a reduction of nearly 80%, but there are other areas and sectors that have actually delivered more learner starts than ever before! Our focus has continued to be to deliver to our customer promise – which includes Babington are curious about my needs as a customer– You truly understand me! Every customer is different and going through different challenges – so being flexible, supportive and just being there to help has been our aim – and I am so proud of how the team have done this and adapted their styles and channels. We have had some great examples of our Customer Engagement teams using video diaries and messages and others building new programmes very quickly to support customers during this time. We have also looked at how we can support Government in solutions and decision making to enable the employers needs to be met during this difficult time.
What are employers saying
Going forward, many employers are saying they will significantly reduce their new recruits into the business and therefore new starter apprentices. However, many still want to utilise their apprenticeship levy and hence are looking at the opportunity to develop and support current employees to begin a programme – especially if they are currently furloughed – what a great opportunity! Productivity and new skills will become even more important over the next couple of years and employers will be looking for new and different skills to meet the challenges that they will face. As a business we are looking at more opportunities to focus on these areas over the next 12 months and also to look at how we can support the sectors that will likely sustain and grow, reducing our reliance on those that will likely shrink in the near term.
There will also be a lot of people who are unfortunately left unemployed at the end of this crisis and they will need support and reskilling to get back on the employment ladder – so we have maintained our Employability team and infrastructure even though we have seen very little activity in the immediate term.
What is the outlook?
It is so difficult to predict and tell exactly how things will work out, how the economy will recover, how long lockdown will last and what the outlook for different sectors will be. The key thing that we will keep doing is to communicate… to our staff, our learners and our customers. We will also focus on being agile – customers wont always know what they need and when they need it – therefore need a partner who can support them during this time, who puts them first and understands their needs.
There will no doubt be some really challenging times ahead – many of the learners who are currently still on programme will likely go beyond their planned end date due to exams not being available or the inability to develop portfolios – this in turn will lead to a lack of funding for providers when they still need the trainers to support learners. This will be on top of the impact for the next couple of years of a significant reduction in new apprenticeship starts – but the ESFA are aware of all this and are working on a solution to avoid a large number of providers going out of business in the next 6 months and the massive impact on learners.
The Apprenticeship and Skill’s system will be critical to the future of the UK economy – getting people reskilled, re-employed and driving productivity. The Government and officials will need our support and ideas to create solutions to continue to make the system sustainable and fit for purpose for the future – this is something that the St Martin’s Group (stmartinsgroup.org) made up of Employers, Providers and EPAOs have been looking to do. I have been really glad to be able to take a collaborative approach with Senior officials in all of my roles as CEO of Babington, Chair of St Martin’s Group and as a member of AELP board to support this agenda and feel this will continue to be an important part of my role.