In response to the pandemic, Kirklees Council has fundamentally and rapidly reassessed their approach to supporting their local businesses and residents
Kirklees Council is a metropolitan borough council in Yorkshire and is one of the constituent councils of the West Yorkshire combined authority. Kirklees’ has a diverse economy with a strong manufacturing and engineering base that supports a wide range of manufacturing sub-sectors from food and drink to automotive, aerospace and pharmaceuticals. The impact of the pandemic on these sectors has been varied. For some sectors, markets have completely dried up, whilst there has been little to no impact on others. Kirklees’s strengths in component manufacturing and precision engineering, have enabled some businesses to successfully pivot, responding to new demands such as PPE, while others have been less able to change or those more heavily reliant on exports have struggled with the impact of Brexit, as well as the pandemic.
Given the significant numbers of businesses operating in these sectors Kirklees has been providing funding to businesses not supported by top-line government funding, for example manufacturers and other businesses operating in the supply chain of the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors. As far as possible, the council has been trying to mirror the government’s offer for these types of business though discretionary grant funding. The diversity of the manufacturing and engineering sector has protected the borough from the worst economic impacts of COVID-19, but this may change when the furlough scheme comes to an end. The furlough data is not currently granular enough to understand the impact on the borough. The provisional furlough take-up rate in January 2021 was 14 per cent, falling from 27.8 per cent in May 2020.
The employment rate in the borough has remained at 73.1 per cent pre- and post- COVID, slightly lower than regional and national figures, although it rose briefly to 73.5 per cent in the July 2019-June 2020 period. For those aged 16-24, the employment rate has grown up to 12.9 per cent and fallen up to 2.5 per cent for those aged 25-49, with gross weekly pay FTE rising £11.70 during this period. However, alongside this, the Universal Credit (UC) claimant rate has almost doubled since March 2020, rising to 6.9 per cent in February 2021. The highest claimant group was those aged 18-24 (10.2 per cent) followed by those 25-49 (9.9 per cent).
The business and skills service
Kirklees’ Business and Skills service covers business support, inward investment, managed business centres and employment and skills provision. The employment team has a staff of 28, which is a mix of business engagement officers, delivery teams, and contract and client managers. The majority of the team’s projects are funded through a variety of external sources, working with the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector and partnerships for face-to-face employability programme delivery, with the council acting as a single point of access to refer to the appropriate services through its ‘Works Better’ employment support programme.
Employability support and adult and community learning
In response to the pandemic, Kirklees Council has fundamentally and rapidly reassessed their approach to supporting their local businesses and residents. The team were able to move employment support and adult learning online relatively quickly without any breaks in delivery or a significant drop in take-up. Before the pandemic, adult and community learning’s outreach and referrals happened more out in the community, but during the pandemic the council became more of a single point of access for these services. Moving to virtual services was a big change for adult and community provision, who were using set-ups like online enrolments for the first time.
The transition to online delivery went smoothly for Kirklees because they had a strong referral system and network of organisations in place before COVID-19. The council was able to learn as they went and embrace platforms like Microsoft Teams early on in the process. They were also able to bring partners together to learn from each other, for example having one partner who was already familiar with Zoom teach others in the network. The team observed some advantages to virtual delivery, such as more engagement from some clients because they did not need to travel for an in-person appointment. The appointment process itself was also streamlined, with processes that would normally take a phone call and an appointment done in just one call. After addressing information governance and GDPR elements, Kirklees was also able to roll-out group sessions for employability participants.
Going forward, the team is likely to continue using a blended model, where people primarily access services virtually, but can also attend face-to-face provision if they need to. During the periods over the past year where the team was able to deliver face-to-face services, Kirklees worked with Job Centre Plus (JCP) to identify which clients would struggle the most with virtual provision and prioritised these for face-to-face provision.
JCP has also undergone a parallel process of adapting to virtual delivery and at the same time has been building its capacity locally through increasing the number of work coaches to support UC claimants. A range of factors have impacted on referrals for employment support – including digital exclusion, home-schooling, and shielding . Referrals into the Works Better programme have fluctuated as a consequence and at times the council’s team has supported customers with wider welfare enquiries alongside employment advice/support. The reduction in referrals during the pandemic has created some difficulties in achieving agreed European Social Fund (ESF) outputs/results during this period.
However, having periods where referrals have been lower has given Kirklees time to adapt to virtual provision and support members of the team who were less comfortable with technology. JCP also helped the council get the message out, through UC journal messages, about Kirklees’ services and that individuals were able to self-refer into. The team has yet to see the overall spike in referrals they have expected, but this may be delayed due to the extension of the furlough scheme.
Overall, this process has reinvigorated how Kirklees’ works with its VCSE partners, encouraging innovation and sharing good practice in order to respond to changing lockdown contexts. While some providers were able to move to digital quickly and deliver good quality provision, others struggled to deliver online. The team was able to support them through providing advice, bringing partners together, and through sharing best practice. As time went on, they were able to encourage everyone to try digital provision even if they had initially thought it would not work for their service. There have been some individuals who have not been able to access digital support because of digital exclusion. For this cohort, the team has purchased laptops and had planned to deliver digital training alongside this, although lockdown has made it a challenge to deliver the face-to-face training that this cohort needs. To address digital exclusion in the borough more widely, the council has also invested in community-based digital hubs within existing community centres or facilities, as well as digital technology for schools.
Moving forward, with additional financial support from the combined authority, the council plans to extend its employment support offer to include those on furlough or in low paid/insecure employment, to sit alongside its established focus on unemployed clients.
Much of the team’s wider support offer for businesses has been channelled into administering the government business grant programme, which has been operating continuously since last spring. As a large authority, the Business and Skills team has worked with colleagues from other teams to give out over £141 million of grants since the start of the pandemic, with over 11,000 businesses receiving grants. This includes distributing over £11 million of discretionary grant funding (to date) which has not only been used to support retail/hospitality/leisure businesses that were ineligible for the main Government schemes but also their wider supply chains and self-employed/home-based businesses that can demonstrate they have been impacted economically by the virus.
This effort has impacted the other business support the council has been able to offer during this time. Kirklees’ business support team is linked in with wider the combined authority and LEP infrastructure, with this team including LEP-funded growth managers. Normally these staff would be out in the community, supporting local business growth. Whilst some of this work has shifted online it has been far from business as usual, and the team has needed to deal with a large volume of businesses that need immediate help. Despite this, they have continued to deliver on aspects that continue to be important, providing advice and support to businesses as well as administering grants.
One of the key parts of the business support response has been recognising and beginning to plan for emerging gaps in support. The pandemic has led to an increase in people entering the labour market which is in turn expected to fuel continued growth in self-employment and start-ups as people seek alternative routes back to earning. Kirklees is keen to support individuals and to capitalise on the potential this generates for creating new businesses and has put additional resource into this area. Traditionally, much of the focus of start-up provision in the area has focussed on B2B and high growth businesses with gaps in provision for those wishing to start B2C or lifestyle businesses. With additional demand expected in this space Kirklees have recently launched a new start-up programme focussed on addressing this gap. Key account management has to some degree taken a backseat to the immediate pandemic response but Kirklees recognise that returning to this will help boost recovery, and are actively investing to increase staff capacity in this area, allowing them to better link key employers with other recovery and growth programmes such as Kickstart.
Kirklees is a local gateway for Kickstart and have established around 100 placements with SME employers. Job connectors (employer engagement staff) in the employment and skills team normally help to carve out and ring fence job opportunities for young people and adults who are furthest from the labour market. This tailed off during the pandemic because many businesses weren’t recruiting. Businesses were very focused on their staff risks (eg furlough, needing to make people redundant). Kickstart’s funded placements has allowed the team to bridge what otherwise would have been difficult conversations around apprenticeship opportunities. Where businesses may not have been able to offer a full apprenticeship, Kickstart can fund a shorter placement with support from the team. This opens an ongoing relationship with these businesses, and in the future the conversation can shift to full apprenticeships and sustainable employment. Kickstart has given the team new opportunities to have these conversations and build relationships with local businesses.
Despite understandable caution in the general markets, Kirklees has seen continued demand for inward investment from the industrial sector driven by its strong manufacturing, warehousing and distribution base. With a number of key strategic employment sites (including two enterprise zones) already in development Kirklees has been able to service the needs of manufacturers who have needed to scale-up during this period. The council is also developing significant sites and has two enterprise zones in the borough for manufacturing, distribution, and warehousing.
- Although challenging in many other respects, the pandemic has created the opportunity for the Kirklees Business and Skills service to engage with more micro-businesses and SMEs, initially through the provision of grants, and this presents a number of opportunities moving forward
- One key element of the team’s learning has been the importance of tackling digital exclusion. Once things start to re-open, they will need to help clients access basic digital skills in order to offer them effective support and ensure they can engage effectively, and this is being addressed through a range of mechanisms, including support for community-based digital hubs
- Although the team has managed the transition to online and remote delivery well, one of the challenges has been being able to maintain incidental conversations and links between the Employment & Skills and Business teams, who used to share office space. Continuing to align the offers of the teams means learning how to keep making links and sharing learning and opportunities.
While it is possible the team could have done things differently, this may not have worked much better than the approach that was taken. It would have been beneficial to have a few extra staff in key support areas, and in particular on administering business grants to maintain delivery of other services, but overall, the service is very proud of what has been achieved.
The model the service had at the beginning of the pandemic was designed for a different world. As more people find themselves unemployed or in need of reskilling, the team wants to ensure they do not leave anyone behind. Those farthest from the labour market, who may have unable to engage during the pandemic due to lack of digital access, will likely be facing larger barriers to employment.
When the team was working with those farthest from the labour market 18 months ago, the supply of jobs was not an issue. Now, in a more competitive job market, these people will have been out of work longer, which will increase both perceived and actual barriers to re-entry. This is being mitigated by increasing the focus on working with those sectors – eg health and social care – which continue to have significant numbers of vacancies.
Whilst referrals into Works Better have remained manageable within existing staff resources, they are likely to increase significantly through 2021, particularly when the furlough scheme ends. Alongside the long-term unemployed, there will be a need for increased support for furloughed employees, those recently made redundant or residents in low wage/insecure employment. One of the positive effects of the pandemic has been the team’s ability to connect with local businesses. Because of the grant-giving process, the council is much better connected than they ever have been before, especially with SMEs. The improved understanding of the local landscape and its needs that has come out of this process will help Kirklees to further develop their offer going forward.
Head of Business and Skills