Learning from employment and skills responses to COVID-19

Employment and skills front cover
A report summarising the learning from economic development, employment and skills services during the pandemic.

Introduction

In January 2021, Rocket Science was asked by the Local Government Association (LGA) to conduct a study into how local government was responding to the employment and skills challenges presented by the pandemic.

The brief was to work with a cross section of LGA member authorities – councils and combined authorities - to produce a short case study on how each had responded, drawing on their insights, learning and data.  We were also asked to reflect on these insights and identify common themes and approaches as well as learning for employment and skills services in the future.


Who took part?

We conducted interviews with economic development and employment and skills teams in twelve councils and one combined authority, and focused the discussions on a mix of one of the following three broad themes:

  • Reflections on their convening role and collaboration with partners to create recovery strategies and responses.
  • How services have reorientated?
  • What innovations or new ways of working have been enabled?

We also wanted to ensure we had a mix of authorities that were representative of political leadership, type, place and geography. The following table shows which authorities took part:

Council

Leadership

Type

Distinctiveness

Bristol

Labour controlled

Unitary authority

Reaching new communities and service integration

Essex

Conservative controlled

Non-metropolitan county

Building relationships with businesses

Devon

Conservative controlled

Non-metropolitan county

Transforming adult learning services

Gateshead

Labour controlled

Metropolitan borough

Reorientation of services collaborations

Halton

Labour controlled

Borough

Digital adaptation and returning to business growth

LB Hounslow

Labour controlled

Borough

Partnerships and sector diversification

LB Waltham Forest

Labour controlled

Borough/Unitary authority

Service transformation

Kirklees

Labour controlled

Metropolitan district

Coordination and collaboration

Mid Suffolk and Babergh

Conservative controlled

Non-metropolitan district

Innovation and business support

Nottinghamshire

Conservative controlled

Non-metropolitan county

Rapid response and convening

Shropshire

Conservative controlled

Unitary authority

Rural response and community-focused development

Staffordshire

Conservative controlled

Non-metropolitan county

Digital service transformation and partnership

Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA)

Conservative

Combined authority (5 unitary authorities)

Large area collaboration

 

Interviews were held between January and March 2021 and case studies referencing public data published as of March 2021.

We would like to thank all the people that took part in the interviews for their time and insights which have proved invaluable.


Emerging themes

Although each authority approached their response in different ways, there were some common themes emerging about their experiences and situations. Whether they were focused on shifting their service to online, working directly with businesses to mitigate impact or developing a coherent council-wide response, there have been some big shifts in the position of their employment and skills functions and offer and this provides important learning for the whole sector.  We identified five main themes:

  1. The rising importance of economic development, employment and skills, moving to a similar status to that of a statutory function at a leadership and cross-council level. 
     
  2. The acceleration of service transformation from face to face to digital, opening up new ways of working, upskilling of staff and moving to a more agile and accessible offer.
     
  3. Council leaders recognise the importance of getting the employment and skills offer right for their local area, that it needs to be at the heart of recovery, and many have invested in services and support at a scale not seen in relatively recent history.
     
  4. Greater freedom and ability to develop and test new ideas and approaches and investing in services and products that could be replicated and scaled.
     
  5. The continued uncertainty of how the long-term impact of COVID-19, furlough and recovery process will play out locally, the lack of good data and the potential challenge faced in widening inequalities and increasing poverty, particularly in-work poverty.

In addition to these themes, there were also similar types of responses dependent on the type of authority, the focus of the employment and skills service, whether delivery was completely in-house, commissioned out or a hybrid model, and where the teams were positioned in their authority pre-pandemic. Based on the interviews held, it was evident that:

  • county councils had greater access to larger pots of funding and in some cases were overseeing other funding such as European Social Fund (ESF) on behalf of their LEP or local partners. This enabled them to secure or shift funding quickly as well as being well placed to convene partners, other funders and responses more strategically
  • district councils or unitary councils were focused more on innovation and reach to businesses, to build relationships and ensure that high streets and towns were protected
  • unitary councils including those that were sub-contractors for national employment programmes or councils that had large in-house teams doing direct delivery of support were able to better layer national programmes such as JETs and Kickstart into local delivery and ensure integrated pathways for residents accessing services.

The following summarises some of the learning emerging across the five themes and considers what councils and partners could do next.

Theme 1 - jobs and skills at the heart of recovery

What we learned

There is no doubt that the pandemic has both shone a light on, and raised the importance of, the economic development and employment and skills functions within local government. Councils have a mandatory responsibility for education services, post-16 planning, children’s and adults’ social care, public health services, planning and housing services, road maintenance and library services. The majority also deliver adult and community learning.

All the councils we spoke to had existing employment and skills strategies and a wide range of mainly external funding to deliver these (ie Adult Education Budget, ESF and some Section 106). The size and reach of the team was dependent on the strategic focus of the council and where the team sat within the organisation.

The impact of the first and subsequent lockdowns was devastating for communities where there was a high proportion of the resident population either furloughed or made redundant from the most affected sectors and in places where entry level employment was traditionally already high.

The rise in claimant rates (at least doubled in all places) affected different age groups, with almost all places experiencing higher rates of claims for 18-24 young people. However, this masked some of the differences in places where the over 50’s or the millennial age groups were more affected because of the labour market, the location and local demographic.

All the councils worked with partners on an economic recovery response, some quicker than others but this laid the foundation for greater visibility of the economic development and employment and skills function with jobs and skills placed at the heart of local recovery. This response included the distribution of grants, moving services online, development of new services or securing other funding to deliver services.

In areas where there was an existing skills and productivity gap, councils expected this to get worse so thought about a longer-term focus on growing the economy, addressing what they expected to be a rise in unemployment for lower-entry jobs and demand for higher level skills. Some areas were reporting an increase in inward investment enquiries and demand for business start-up support in recognition that choices around work and home were now far more flexible and businesses taking up opportunities to move away from city centres.

Common across all the areas interviewed was the strength of local leadership in facilitating and accelerating a response. This was important considering the normal lead-in time for strategy development and an indication of what can be done within a short timescale. Perhaps more important was the way in which the pandemic response enabled different teams and directorates to collaborate more through a single focus on recovery. We explore some of this in more detail in the following theme.


What next

This increased momentum and focus on the employment and skills agenda by councils has pushed jobs and skills at the top of the agenda. What will be important is how this can be maintained and sustained as we move out of lockdown, particularly over the next five years. We suggest:

  • keeping jobs and skills top of the agenda: One of the risks is that this focus will become less of a priority as communities recover. Based on our conversations, councils are expecting most places to eventually get back to a pre-pandemic economic state within the next two to three years.  It will be important for employment and skills teams to understand the impact this focus has had both in terms of economic and social impact, so there is clear evidence and learning from which to make the case for future investment and leadership.
     
  • sharing services: There is some learning about how emergency responses can be a catalyst for joining up council services and to consider support through an employment and skills lens.  We heard examples of where employment brokerage expertise was used to help redeploy staff into response roles and support vaccination roll out and how they helped their adult social care teams to recruit.  It will be good for councils to reflect on their learning and how this could continue and evolve in the future.
     
  • future resilience: It was clear from our discussions that teams that had direct control and influence over funding and resources were able to adapt quickly. From a future resilience perspective this could help make the case to integrate all employment, skills and learning activity into a central function within the council. Teams that already deliver employment support should also consider whether they could extend delivery and be built into the supply chains for nationally funded programmes such as Restart. This would enable them to make the links between different programmes and use resources and other funding to plug gaps in the range of employment support pathways on offer.

Theme 2 - service transformation

What we learned

Within days of the first lockdown, services had to shift from face to face to remote delivery.  Dependent on the quality of and availability of digital infrastructure, councils’ move to digital delivery varied, some within days and others taking longer. Some teams did not have the equipment to work remotely and where teams also managed adult and community learning (ACL), they had to quickly develop ways of engaging and supporting learners in their courses.

Some saw this as an opportunity to engage with more people and provide access to virtual support for those who had never needed to interact with the council before. Others saw learners who were further away from the labour market or who had special needs putting their learning on hold until such a point as they could resume face to face.

All councils either had an existing or created a virtual hub where information on support for residents and, in some cases businesses, could access help, jobs and training. Bringing together information into a single platform has enabled better communication of the range of offers and support as well as providing a single front door for a wider support.

Tutors have had to be agile and innovative in the way in which they moved curriculum and assessments online, using tools such as Whatsapp to get evidence of learning and practice. COVID-19 has enabled a traditional face to face offer to move to a digital offer. In some cases, this has meant front-loading theory and underpinning learning so that practical assessments can take place when it is safe to do so. Once the latest lockdown ends, there will be a mix of both face to face and online provision leading to a new offer to people who would have otherwise found it difficult to engage in adult and community learning. However, there are concerns on the extent to which qualifications, awarding bodies and regulatory bodies ie Ofsted are able to adapt standards and assessments to meet this digital offer and how this might affect accreditations in the future.

One council who was embarking on a digital transformation programme for their services felt that they had achieved what they needed to within weeks, rather than the three-year plan they were working to. All councils experienced this shift and were able to learn the skills quickly to be able to work remotely. In practice this meant that more time was spent on delivery than ever before. There was less time spent on travelling between meetings, especially in large counties where travelling time to meetings could easily be two hours and travelling could easily take up nearly half of the working week.

There was also greater access and flexibility for meetings which helped facilitate quick decision making as well as reduced the administrative challenges of arranging meetings particularly where they involved travel. Working remotely also reduced some of the formality of working across teams and departments and this was felt to enable better relationships and action. Several commented that they hoped this way of working would continue including a mix of remote working and working back in council offices.

There was some concern about managing the health and wellbeing of staff working through such a rapid transition. Councils reported that some staff were not digitally enabled, others did not have the skills, and the pace of change for staff might have been overwhelming. 


What next

The pandemic has enabled a rapid digital transformation for employment and skills service, both in terms of front-line delivery of support to residents and business as well as for the management of services. As we move out of lockdown, we suggest that councils consider the following:

  • Evaluate the future role of online learning platforms/virtual hubs: It will be important to reflect on the effectiveness of online learning platforms/virtual hubs in meeting the needs of learners, residents and businesses. There is clearly a case for mixed delivery to meet the needs of learners including those more vulnerable who prefer face to face interaction. These services were developed quickly without the usual consultative process that authorities would undergo with service users. It would be worth assessing the extent to which these platforms have supported residents, businesses and learners alongside how these might need to evolve over time. 
     
  • Maintain flexibility for virtual working and meetings: Everyone we spoke to commented on the value of remote working and the need to keep flexibility when it is safe to return to offices. It will be very difficult to go back to the ‘old ways of working’ and important to make sure councils retain the effectiveness of virtual meetings and a more agile approach to management and delivery of services.

Theme 3 - more funding, more people

What we learned

All the councils we spoke to had received additional investment into their economic development and employment and skills services. In the main, this came from accessing existing council budgets to enhance business grant and recovery programme delivery, digitally enable staff or increase staff to manage demand and pots of funding for specific projects.

Many services have been reliant on a mix of external funding, particularly European Social Fund (ESF). Councils directly delivering employment services are aware that a funding gap will open as the UK’s access to EU funds ceases. Most councils are allocated Adult Education Budget to deliver adult and community learning provision, and the general view is that they had greater freedom on how they spent the funding, and many use it as a lever to secure additional funding.  For those also managing funding on behalf of their LEP, they were able to stitch funding together and were able to bid for other council funding to top up their services. Alongside this, due to the pandemic, additional national support became available locally including through jobcentre Plus (JCP), programmes such as bootcamps funded by the Department for Education, as well as funding through LEPs, combined authorities and devolved regions.

For example, in Staffordshire, the council was able to offer a top up grant for apprenticeships and provide a free learning programme for businesses. Essex County Council secured over £6 million funding to enhance their business support programme, London Borough of Waltham Forest secured £500,000 to enhance their employment brokerage offer. In all cases resources were found to grow teams. Babergh and Mid-Suffolk took on staff to focus on their sector and inward investment offer, and Hounslow grew its team from four to nine people.

The focus on placing jobs and skills at the heart of the recovery as explored earlier in this paper was prioritised by all our interviewees, and this was backed up by significant investment for services that would have traditionally found it more difficult to fund pre-pandemic. Funding such as Section 106 where councils control it, is an important source of match funding. Making a business case for investment is also important where future income for councils needs to be protected ie through council taxes and business rates. 

The challenge comes in the future and how this funding and resource could be continued beyond the next year or two, where mainstream budgets could be reduced, withdrawn or contracted out nationally eg ESF successor arrangements are still in development, and a continued push of nationally driven programmes through the DWP CAEHRS framework. 


What next

How sustainable are employment and skills services in the future? The Government announcement for the Levelling up and Community Renewal Funds earlier in March 2021 set out that there would be priority areas by council area. We discussed early on in this paper some of the structural changes that could help keep services sustainable, ie centralising of functions and considering becoming a direct provider. One of the main issues identified by councils was the existing complexity of employment and skills and how national programmes would land in local areas.  Whilst funding is welcome, each programme has a different focus and outcome, resulting in two challenges. The first is how to ensure effective transitions through programmes so people do not fall through the gaps and the second about mitigating a confusing offer for employers. We think councils should consider the following if they are to make the case for funding in the future:

  • Understanding the cost benefit and social value of effective services: A great deal of work has been done to understand the benefits of early intervention and prevention and the role of employment and ‘good work’ in reducing demands on council and public services and create decent environments for people to work. With the consultation on public sector procurement likely to lead to increased social value, the next two years provides councils with a good opportunity to build the evidence base on the impact of an employment and skills service/offer on local recovery and cost reduction to build the business case for future investment.
     
  • Better integration of support for businesses: All councils talked about having a ‘single offer’ for businesses and their role in providing a ‘single front door’ for businesses to go for support. The distribution of business grants by the council had built relationships with their business community providing a strong platform from which to engage them on recruitment needs and maximising opportunities including apprenticeships and Kickstart, with practical local support on how to make that happen and work through any issues. There is a case to be made for councils to develop an enhanced business brokerage for local recovery and growth and becoming a key partner as the interface with local business and employment and skills programmes.

Theme 4 - innovation and new ideas

What we learned

Given the pace at which services had to adapt and respond to the impact of lockdown on the local economy, this environment created the conditions for greater freedom and appetite to test new ideas and ways of working.

We have talked about the digital shift earlier on in this paper and how that enabled innovations in delivery and practice. However, this need to respond provided opportunities for services to have a dynamic way of testing and learning approaches accepting that things did not have to be right first time or be successful. Learning what was working and being able to try new ideas was essential to developing and sustaining their overall offer.

One council which already had an integrated employment and skills service used the Everyone In programme as an opportunity to reach over 400 people that were homeless and sleeping rough with an IAG and community learning offer. Another was starting to scope out new programmes of support to help micro-businesses and business start-up opportunities for both young and older people.  

Access to, and control of funding enabled services to provide innovative offers to businesses such as free HR and business support, apprenticeship top-ups and investment to support innovation and growth.

One council worked with their town council and an existing business who had been supported through their own innovation programme. They created a successful virtual high street platform for independent traders to help them move their business online. Using seed corn funding and owning the intellectual property rights (IPR) for the technology, the council is now in a position to replicate the platform across its other market towns. During the next phase it will be developed to offer online trading and with the view of becoming self-sustaining over time. 

The move to an online offer for adult and community learning also presented opportunities to rethink how learning could be delivered to reach a wider audience and have a greater impact on improving access to learning and skills progression.

 

We suggest it is important to bring these together as a central resource to draw upon either for further collaboration and/or scaling across the local government community:

Innovation showcase: These case studies have provided insight into some of the innovations that have been developed but there are likely to be other examples. An innovation showcase on employment and skills to bring these to a wider audience and to help identify those that have potential to replicate and scale could be considered. A curated platform of ideas that have already been tested could be a useful resource for the sector.

Support for scaling: Alongside the above, there is potential to support to help products scale to other councils. This would reduce duplication and provide an alternative route to market.

Theme 5 - planning for the future

What we learned

Councils reported a mixed experience of being able to access data and insight to inform their decision making and response.

Most councils had access to some data mainly at regional/subregional level, although getting this at the level of granularity needed to develop local responses was difficult. Overlaying national predictions and forecasts at regional/subregional level were helpful to look at overall change but these fell short when applying to district and neighbourhood level and to understand the local impact on individual sectors. Two of the councils we spoke to had access to data analysts as they hosted and supported this function on behalf of their LEP and commented that having this resource on hand was very helpful. 

Although data on UC claims was available through Stat-Xplore this was not at sufficient level to understand the impact on different groups of people, relying on other studies and insight from the frontline in terms of where need for support was coming from. This was particularly the case for ethnic minorities and people with disabilities/long term conditions.

One council used the data on UC to better understand how claims were changing at LSOA level so that they could map this against where existing services for support were located.  This revealed that there was little or no access to support in places where claimant rates were highest, which did not naturally fit with existing areas designated as deprived. This insight helped them to work with a provider to locate their Restart services in these areas.

Many councils commented that the continued furlough arrangements had effectively hidden what is likely to become a wave of need likely to hit in the summer. But with an expected ‘bounce-back’ following the easing of restrictions, moving into what areas are predicting a potentially strong season for retail and hospitality, the true impact of pandemic is unlikely to be understood until the spring next year (2021). Managing this unpredictability is difficult.

Although councils are expecting their economies to recover this will likely mean:

  • a rise of in-work poverty where people have more precarious work such as low pay and insecure contracts and for newly unemployed who have had to change sectors.
  • widening of inequality for those already disadvantaged and in danger of being further left behind as a result of cherry picking.
  • continued need to support young and older people who have not benefitted from national programmes such as Kickstart and Restart.

A final reflection is that although councils are still dealing with current impact on their communities, they also have to look forward to the future. Many were looking at their longer-term strategies and needing quality data to be able to inform and shift their existing skills supply to meet demand for growth. This was seen to be a big challenge but critical to improving productivity.


What next

All councils spoke of the importance of getting people into ‘Good Work’, but we need to understand what this means in the context of recovery, where it may not be possible for programmes to offer these opportunities. This brings in-work support and progression into greater focus. With the digital transformation of adult and community learning and the access and flexibility this can provide for more people, this could create greater incentive for alignment between employment and skills programmes in local areas to support all aspects of an employment pathway. 

Conclusions

Our findings from our discussions with councils have shown how critical their efforts to bring together employment and skills have been to supporting local places through the pandemic and into recovery. 

This renewed interest has resulted in both investment and freedom to innovate and grow services alongside bringing greater coherence between offers to businesses and residents. 

The shift to digital platforms and remote working has created new ways of working and efficiencies and councils have really shown the strength of their convening power to bring together funding, programmes and partners.

The role councils have played in rapidly respond to local economic shock has been critical and cemented their importance within the local employment and skills ecology.