Delivering a large scale skills contract across Cumbria is a major challenge but Zoe Makepeace believes The Edge partnership has the expertise to succeed.
Zoe Makepeace seems remarkably calm for a woman tasked with overseeing an £8.5 million contract to improve workplace skills in Cumbria. In theory, she has no right to be: her job involves coordinating The Edge, an 18-strong partnership of further education colleges, skills providers and business organisations, not to mention Cumbria County Council and the Chamber of Commerce.
Then there is the not inconsiderable job of persuading often wary employers of the benefits – indeed the pressing need – of upskilling their existing workforce.
Furthermore, the clock is ticking. The contract ends in March 2019, and there is still much to do if it is to achieve its stated goals of engaging 2,800 employers and 6,500 learners.
Our job is to convince employers that by investing in skills they are also investing in the future of their business.
“Yes, it’s a tight deadline – but that’s just the nature of funding,” says Zoe, who is Assistant Director of Carlisle College. “I’m very lucky, though, because although The Edge has a large and wide-ranging membership, all of the partners are working towards the same goal and are determined to make it succeed.
“And it must succeed. Only through skills investment can we grow the economy of Cumbria and create better jobs.”
It is now a year since Carlisle College learned it had won the tender for the European Social Fund’s Employees Support in Skills Programme in Cumbria. Awarded by the Education and Skills Fund Agency, the £8.5 million contract, commissioned by Cumbria LEP, enabled the county’s skills providers to build on existing partnership arrangements in order to support the LEP’s ambitious vision of Cumbria as one of the UK’s fastest-growing economies by raising skill levels and reducing the looming threat of a skills gap.
The Edge partnership includes such organisations as the University of Cumbria, Barrow Training Partnership, Gen2, SP Training, The Skills Network, Cumbria Council for Voluntary Service, and Carlisle, Furness, Lakes, Newton Rigg and Kendal Colleges. The Edge even has its own website www.theedgeincumbria.co.uk with information about all the partners and the funded training.
All of the partners at The Edge are working towards the same goal and are determined to make the project succeed.
It was set up initially in 2013 to facilitate a two-year skills investment programme which exceeded its targets supporting around 3,000 learners and 900 employers. The current programme follows a similar theme and is aimed at giving existing employees the opportunity to progress up the ladder through apprenticeships and higher-level learning.
Employees aged 16 and over and working for a Cumbria-based SME can benefit, and some larger employers with distinct skills needs are also being supported.
“Accredited and non-accredited training up to Level 4 is available, as well as bespoke packages delivered on employer premises,” says Zoe. “But in addition to supporting intermediate, technical and higher-level skills we are supporting individuals to take up apprenticeships and higher apprenticeships in the key sectors, such as advanced manufacturing, transportation and logistics, engineering, agriculture, health and social care, and construction.
The fact that The Edge partnership was already in existence when the new contract was awarded has, according to Zoe, been hugely beneficial considering the narrow, two-year window of opportunity. “It meant that the mechanisms were in place, that we weren’t starting from scratch, and that we could concentrate on getting the message across to employers.” It’s a message which, understandably perhaps, was greeted with initial wariness by the bosses of Cumbria’s SMEs. Training is time consuming – and who is to say that the newly-upskilled employee won’t then move on to another job?
“These are legitimate concerns, but our job is to convince employers that by investing in skills they are also investing in the future of their business. We have found that employees who are given training and allowed to grow within their existing workplace no longer feel they are merely an employee. They feel part of the business, they want it to succeed.”
Zoe is keen to stress that the project has more to offer than just focusing on funded workforce development within SMEs. In order to promote the take-up of apprenticeships, the Chamber of Commerce has launched an impartial brokerage service aimed at simplifying the recruitment process. Meanwhile eight employer panels have been established with Cumbria LEP within priority sectors to ensure employers are involved in directing and shaping the training services that are being provided.
“We want to ensure that employers are engaged in developing the services we are delivering, because at the end of the day it is they who will benefit from the programme,” Zoe says.
Between now and March 2019 The Edge Partnership will deliver the £8.5 million workforce development programme to 6500 learners and 2800 employers. This represents a major investment to create better jobs, increase our skills base and grow the Cumbrian economy.
The project also supports organisations undergoing industrial restructure and along with Jobcentre Plus operates as part of a task force to support businesses having to make redundancies by offering employees the opportunity to up skill and re-train while still in employment. With less than a year to go, it is all systems go for Zoe and her team.
Encouragingly, it seems the message is getting across as more and more employers see the possibilities of upskilling their workforce. “Delivering a large-scale skills contract such as this, across such a large and often inaccessible county as Cumbria will always present challenges,” she says. “But we would not be doing it if we did not think the providers involved were able to deal with these, and with some of the very best facilities in the country.”
Only through skills investment can we grow the economy of Cumbria and create better jobs.