Colleges and independent FE providers have been flocking to support the government’s new Kickstart initiative by helping employers who could otherwise not take part get onto the placement scheme.

FE Week spoke with the leaders of colleges and training providers to find out how they have got involved, and what benefits it holds for the further education and skill sector

The Kickstart scheme, announced by chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak in his summer statement in July, offers 16 to 24-year-olds on Universal Credit who are at risk of long-term unemployment a six-month work placement – with the government picking up their wage bill.

Employers must be able to offer a minimum of 30 placements to be allowed to apply for the scheme, which is being run by the Department for Work and Pensions, otherwise they have to apply to join through a gateway provider.

Gateway providers are where FE and skills providers come in: they club employers together so the group, as a whole, can apply with 30 placements on offer.

For each placement, gateway providers receive £300 to support administrative costs, while employers receive £1,500 per placement for help with setup costs.

According to the DWP, gateway providers must have experience of managing partnership agreements with third parties, and have “robust” financial and governance processes to manage applications – those processes are due to be set out in coming weeks.

Minister for employment Mims Davies MP told FE Week gateway providers are “crucial” in helping smaller businesses take advantage of Kickstart.

She said the response from organisations to becoming gateway providers has been “hugely encouraging” with more than 500 organisations stepping up.

However, she has called for more organisations to step forward to “support this national effort and get behind the career ambitions of the next generation”.

 Approved Kickstart gateway providers are listed on the DWP website and at the time of going to press 26 colleges were listed, along with around a dozen independent training providers.

Such is the enthusiasm for Kickstart that gateway provider Cornwall College Group says it already has 30 placements ready for the November start, having only been approved as a gateway provider this month.

Justin Olosunde

Assistant principal for external engagement and business innovation Justin Olosunde said they were “really well placed” to be intermediaries: “Provision for us has always been about matching the right individual to their chosen career and supporting them into employment and working with our employer network of over 2,000 employers across the region.

“So it really, for me, is almost an extension of the day job.”

He said the gateway role “should be something that will come naturally to colleges”.

“The larger apprenticeship provider colleges like ourselves will always be better placed to do it, because they will have the employer engagement links which will be key to the placements, and they’ll have more experience of working with young people that want employment now as opposed to going into a fulltime college course, and a big bank of employers that they’ve worked with for a lot of years.”

It is not just colleges getting involved: independent providers have also signed up, with Association of Employment and Learning Providers managing director Jane Hickie saying it is “no surprise” considering their links to small and medium-sized enterprises.

Managing director of provider the Education and Skills Partnership Jason Hargreaves told FE Week he saw Kickstart as an opportunity to grow partnerships with employers, while improving their relationships with existing clients during the Covid-19 crisis: “If we can help young people to develop and to grow, from a commercial perspective, it’s helping businesses while also providing a nurturing environment” for learners.

Jason Hargreaves

But he warned: “We have got to be very clear learners are embarking on this for the right reasons, that we’re not just training for the sake of it: It’s got to be impactful, it’s got to add value, and it’s got to help learners reach their full potential, as well as linking into the businesses’ needs and requirements.”

Fellow independent training provider Catch22 has also pushed the importance of avoiding “meaningless” placements, with chief development officer Mat Ilic saying: “For Kickstart to benefit the employees, employers, and our society, these placements must have a real chance of career progression.”

Cornwall and ESP are two of a number of providers which, as well as helping other employers onto the scheme, have been looking at setting up their own work placements.

Hargreaves says ESP has to “lead by example”, and is looking at taking on two placements at this time, while Cornwall is looking at hosting six placements, filling roles such as campus support officer – ensuring students and visitors observe guidelines to guard against Covid-19.

Loughborough College principal Jo Maher told FE Week her college is looking to host 35 placements, in addition to those placements they will support as a gateway provider.

“One of the main benefits for employers,” Maher said, “is that our team will take the heavy lifting away from them by making funding applications on their behalf, guiding them through the process and by working with DWP to find the workforce”.

Jo Maher

“Shaping the future careers and prospects for local people is at the core of Loughborough College,” she continued, “so we hope our involvement will create some amazing opportunities and potential new career paths for people.”

Chichester College Group’s managing director Julie Kapsalis said they have become a gateway provider as: “While large organisations which can support 30 job placements are able to apply directly to the scheme, we are very conscious that there are many smaller employers who need to use an intermediary to be able to participate.”

“That’s really where we come in,” she explained, saying Chichester’s gateway work will support small-to medium enterprises and micro-businesses onto the scheme.

Aside from the £300, an advantage of the scheme for providers is they can use it to funnel Kickstart participants onto their apprenticeship, study or other training programmes.

Weston College principal Paul Phillips, who has already seen 15 employers sign up with the college, highlighted how: “We can also offer further training to the candidates once the scheme has finished, through apprenticeships or other bespoke training.”

And as an employer, Weston is also looking at how it can offer its own placements, as Phillips says he saw the scheme “as a potential pipeline for the college’s own apprentices in 2021”.

Employers are choosing to go for the lower-cost option

Not all is well though: Hickie highlighted with approval how young people on Kickstart can move onto an apprenticeship at any time during their six-month placement, but said employers ought to be able to keep using the wage subsidies once a person moves off the scheme.

There has also been some concern from the FE and skills sector that Kickstart’s wage subsidy and £1,500 employer incentive will dampen down apprenticeship starts.

Labour’s shadow apprenticeships and lifelong learning minister Toby Perkins has told FE Week he still has concerns about the scheme, after hearing about employers pulling out of apprenticeships and opting to do Kickstart instead.

“Employers are choosing to go for the lower-cost option, and in terms of the difference between six months with the wages paid, or a £2,000 incentive at the end of the apprenticeship – there is not a huge amount of comparison.”

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