The skills system has done an amazing job during the corona crisis and will be critical as the UK economy tries to get back on its feet, says David Marsh

Most people will be pretty clear – the biggest challenge has been uncertainty. Everything has changed so much in the past two months that many would struggle to remember everything that we have been through. Government has moved quickly, but it has still led to much uncertainty and confusion for employers, learners and providers. This has made dealing with the situation difficult – not knowing whether employers would place learners on breaks, whether learners could learn on furlough, eligibility for financial support from government, and so on.

How have we reacted?

Our vision at Babington is developing better futures. We have 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 – as otherwise we weren’t going to be able to develop anyone’s future! We have had an absolute focus on three things during this really difficult time.

Firstly, staff: we have been open and transparent. We have discussed the challenges and the solutions with the whole business wherever possible and talked about how we are all in it and will get through it together. We have been as visible as we can be and if anything, have got even closer to the business. We started holding daily “Coffee and Chat” sessions with the business to update them on what we know. In these times the main question people want answered is “Is my job safe?”, and we have done everything we can to reassure. Our aim was to treat everyone as fairly as possible.

Secondly, learners: we have worked hard to keep them informed and communicated with. We believed the best thing was to keep them on programme, motivated and supported and in the main we have been able to do this. Our teams have been able to support learners through much of this difficult time and give support with the many challenges they face, including mental health. We have quickly increased the amount of virtual training that we deliver and this has been received incredibly positively.

“The key things we will keep doing are communicating and being agile”

Thirdly, customers: 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 and programmes more significantly affected than others. Particularly hard hit has been our new-entrant programmes where we saw a reduction of nearly 80 per cent, but there are other areas and sectors that have actually delivered more learners than ever before.

What are employers saying?

Many employers state that they will significantly reduce their new recruits but still want to utilise their apprenticeship levy and hence are looking at the opportunity to develop current employees – especially if they furloughed. Productivity and new skills will become even more important in the near future and employers will be looking for new and different skills to meet the challenges they face. We are looking to focus on these areas and also to look at how we can support the sectors that will likely sustain and grow.

There will also be a lot of people who are unfortunately left unemployed and they will need support and re-skilling to get back on the employment ladder, so we have maintained our employability team and infrastructure even though we have seen very little activity.

What is the outlook for training providers?

It is difficult to predict exactly how things will work out, how the economy will recover and what the outlook for different sectors will be. The key things that we will keep doing are to communicate and be agile.

There are two main challenges coming down the road that will potentially affect the quality, brand and capacity of the apprenticeship system and impact learners. These are both around the effect of the current crisis on the stability of providers in the medium term.

• The reduction in the number of new apprenticeship starts from employers will impact for the next two years when those learners would be on programme.

• The increased amount of time and support that learners will need to achieve their programmes will lead to a very large number going out of funding, meaning providers will not have funding coming in and hence will struggle to keep supporting these learners.

The skills system will be critical to the future of the UK economy – getting people re-skilled and driving productivity. It has done an amazing job during this crisis to support learners both academically and pastorally – this shouldn’t be ignored. Officials will need our support and ideas to create solutions to continue to make the system sustainable and fit for purpose for the future.