Digitising the service offer and supporting people to in-demand jobs - Halton Borough Council

HBC has been able to build on their longstanding partnerships with employers including housing associations and major corporations to continue to offer joint job training and employability programmes during the pandemic.

The context

Halton Borough Council (HBC) is based in the North West and covers the towns of Widnes and Runcorn and is part of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority.

Halton has experienced significant economic growth with sectors including in advanced manufacturing, science, logistics and digital sectors and had been investing in new housing to make it an attractive place to live and work. However, it also has several Lower Layer Super Output Areas (LSOAs) in the top 10 per cent of the most deprived areas and a widening skills gap between what the economy needs and what residents can offer.

The impact of COVID-19 on the direct services sector has been significant, with manufacturing activity and construction work also affected by the lockdown periods, the furlough rate is currently 11 per cent (down from 22 per cent from the first lockdown).  With a relatively high employment rate of 77.3 per cent before the first lockdown, the employment rate has reduced by 3 per cent.  The largest rate of UC claims is for the 18-24 age group, a rise of over 7 per cent since March 2020, although the employment rate for those aged 35-49 has reduced by 4.5 per cent.

The team

HBC’s Employment, Learning, and Skills Division has been established for over ten years and is a sub-contractor for the government’s work-related programmes. This includes DWP’s Work and Health programme and Job Entry Targeted Support (JETS). HBC is also a direct deliverer of European Social Fund (ESF) programmes for those aged 16+ such as the Ways to Work programme, which offers intermediate labour market opportunities. They are also in discussions about being a sub-contractor for a future national employment programme.  Their main cohort is working with people aged 30 to 50 with 70 per cent of learners being female. 

The team also has remit for adult learning programmes, offering in-house provision of basic English and maths courses, as well as ICT and Childcare up to Level 2, with the college focusing on Level 3+. The team works with employers to codesign and run specific pre-employment skills programmes focused on particular key sectors and have recently supported the adult social care sector. The Apprenticeship Support by the Be More team for the Liverpool City Region is based in Halton, which provides advice and guidance as well as outreach to schools across the region.

This combination of delivery and strategy enables the team to map programmes and secure outcomes together for residents and employers, by identifying gaps in provision and providing an integrated employment and skills offer on the ground. 

The response

HBC has been able to build on their longstanding partnerships with employers including housing associations and major corporations to continue to offer joint job training and employability programmes during the pandemic.

However, the team was not digitally enabled and able to pivot to an online offer as quickly as others. They initially had to deliver employment, learning and skills services via phone and on a combination of different platforms until their current infrastructure went live in September. The switch to digital learning was not welcomed entirely by all learners, while more vulnerable learners preferred to wait until they could have face to face learning.  Although the team received combined authority funding to provide digital equipment to their adult learners, this has not yet had a high take up. 

The council has not seen major redundancies or business closures, which is partly due to hospitality, leisure, and retail making up only about 15 per cent of the borough’s workforce.

Current vacancy levels have reached a similar level to last year, but these have been concentrated in logistics and distribution and the healthcare sector. HBC expect that jobs in these sectors will continue to grow and has found that flexible employment funding allows them to offer the support people need to skill up for these jobs, such as driving lessons or getting heavy vehicle licenses.  

The rate of job creation and economic opportunities in the borough is positive but the council is concerned about the impact of COVID-19 longer term for residents who are furthest away from the labour market and those with little or no skills. Halton has a higher rate of residents with no qualifications than the North West or Great Britain average. There are wide differences between prosperous and disadvantaged residents: although Halton’s average earnings per person in the workforce is higher than the North West average, the average for residents of Halton as a whole (including those not in work) is much lower. There is concern about this trend increasing poverty and widening wealth disparity.

With continuing investment in SciTech Daresbury in the borough, there have also been high levels of inward investment enquiries about the opportunities, particularly for smaller scientific and research businesses who want to cluster around specific sites. The council have been flexing their social value requirements to make sure that site is committed to grow the number of local residents working there.

The learning

  • The team is now seeing learners ready to sit maths and English exams, which has shown the service’s ability to continue to engage and keep people on board.  Although the shift to digital was not easy, the impact on learners has been marginal.
  • They have seen a drop in apprenticeship vacancies for young people aged 16-24, with over 25s taking these roles because employers assume an older cohort will be able to work from home more effectively. They want to make sure that there is an offer for young people beyond Kickstart so need to work on a coordinated response for 16–24-year-olds.
  • The team has continued with a ‘Business as Usual’ approach. Their set up has meant that they can package support for employers and work through the right programmes for them. As a mature and stable service with little staff turnover and strong connections into the local employment partnership and a responsive employer offer, they have been able to manage the impact and develop new programmes.

In hindsight

Looking back, not having digital platform in place was extremely challenging, but the eventual integration of digital into the service has had a positive impact on delivery in the future.

The future

The council’s main concern is the impact of COVID-19 on those who were already disadvantaged and the increasing wealth and opportunity disparity. The uncertainty of the length and long-term impacts of the furlough scheme has made it challenging to try to predict and deploy resources.

The current reliance on the logistics and distribution sector has positively impacted employment rates but may be skewing the employment picture across the borough and still too early to say what the longer-term impacts on the economy will be.

For the future, the council will be looking to align economic data to inform how resources are deployed in the future. The borough is experiencing real growth and it will be important now to make sure that local people have the skills and opportunities to benefit from jobs emerging in their advanced manufacturing and science and innovation sectors.


Wesley Rourke – Operational Director