Investing in staff training might not be top of the agenda for businesses struggling to survive the recession, but perhaps it should be. Research shows that firms which cut out training are two and a half times more likely to fail than those that don't. After all, it's competent, committed staff who enable companies to secure a competitive edge.
But even Arran Fewtrell, a manager at Corus Group, who sees the logic to this argument, takes issue with the idea of pausing production at a time when firms need all the business they can get. Corus's first reaction to the recession was to set up a strategy that included training staff in the interpersonal skills that would help shift its macho production culture towards the more self-aware one needed to make the company more innovative. "Production is our focus, it's where all the money is made. You can't plan for a production pause," he says. "I was certain that no trainer would agree to my requirement of saying: 'I can't plan ahead – I'll only be able to call you randomly to say that, next week, we've got some quiet days when you could come in'."
To his surprise, Middlesbrough College came up trumps. "They have been more flexible than you can imagine, and in terms of staff morale – and consequently staff productivity – the training has hugely paid off."
Otley College in Suffolk works with employers at an even earlier stage, proactively offering them a needs-analysis service. "The idea is to identify any gaps required to give them the competitive edge they need," explains Carolyn Leggett, a manager in the business team. "We can carry out most of the training they need, often on site. If we can't, we point the business in the right direction of someone who can."
The recession puts some sectors more at risk than others. Hull, for instance, is a major centre for caravan and trailer manufacturing in the UK, but recent months have seen sales fall dramatically, with many companies moving to three- or four-day weeks. It is with this in mind that Hull College is focusing on this industry. "We've been working with organisations directly affected, and those at risk across the entire supply chain, to strengthen their resilience to the ongoing economic situation," explains Jeremy Coupland, the college's executive director.
For some companies, this involves taking people off production and teaching them other skills, such as admin or IT. For others, it means helping them make the best of the redundancies they are forced to make. "We provide a drop-in centre, where employees at risk of losing their jobs can discuss potential opportunities in confidence," says Coupland. "We run it with partners like Jobcentre Plus and careers advisers, so people get a comprehensive service.
"The most common thing people tell us is: 'I've been in this sector all my life, I can't do anything else'," he says. "But because our college has often been involved in training them over the years anyway, they're often surprised to find that their qualifications, such as NVQs, may be applicable to other industries."
Burton College found similar attitudes in employees facing redundancy from Wincanton Logistics. They couldn't access facilities on the college's main campus because of constraints on shift patterns, but the college's e-bus provided a round-the-clock training-and-support solution so that, during the eight-week redundancy period, employees could work out their next career step.
Like many colleges, Burton doesn't stop at identifying jobs; it also offers help in CV and interview preparation and writing formal letters. Some colleges even have training centres on company sites. "We've had an established learning centre within the Derby Rolls-Royce site for almost a decade, supporting the company through various periods of downsizing," says April Hayhurst, the director of business development at Derby College. "The centre provides training not only for Rolls-Royce employees – present and past – but their families too."
The recession hasn't put a complete stop to recruitment and Mark Cook, executive director of business development at Lewisham College, is collaborating more closely than ever with employers, particularly in terms of course content, to ensure candidates have the skills employers want. "We have courses in areas such as construction, retail, and health and social care – where there are still vacancies – that are completely employer-led," he says. It is an attitude echoed in Barnfield College and Barnet College.
One of the main benefits for individuals looking to train during the downturn is that courses need not cost the earth. Richmond Adult Community College is offering discounts of up to 75 per cent on fees this year, and enrolments to its summer courses have increased by 30 per cent compared to last year. College principal, Christina Conroy, believes the surge in numbers is about more than bargain fees. "People are realising that one way of surviving the recession is to develop existing skills and acquire new ones. With unemployment rising, employers can be very selective when taking on new employees or promoting existing staff. The more relevant qualifications a person has, the greater their chances."
Conroy is adamant that the college caters for all local people affected by the recession. "It hit Richmond quite badly; about 60 per cent of its residents work in high-risk industries such as financial services. The unemployment rate has doubled and is expected to triple by Christmas. That's why we've been working hard to put on new courses, 50 of which are specifically focused at getting people back to work, as well as doing things like offering internships within the college and helping people start up their own businesses."
Becoming self-employed was also the subject of one of a series of events on responding to the recession that have been held by City College Norwich this year. "The number of people facing redundancy in our city is growing substantially, so our events are aimed specifically at addressing the issue," says principal, Dick Palmer. He believes there are two main reasons for the events' popularity. "First, because they're held away from the college in modern, office-like locations, people feel they're walking into a business, not an institution. Second, these events are about offering advice and guidance, not a hard sell on our courses."
Brent College is also offering objective advice in its drop-in clinics. "An impartial adviser will draw up a personal action plan after looking at the client's existing skills, interests, courses at the college and others in the area, and how these fit with their preferences," explains student development services manager, Jo Lawrence.
Meanwhile, at City of Bristol College, job-seekers are offered structured work experience that often leads to job placements. Having left school at 16, Leanne Ford, now 22, says: "I came to the college looking to improve my English and maths, so I was more likely to get a job in the recession. I was surprised to be offered a bit of work shadowing on the college's reception desk. I hadn't even thought of receptionist work as a potential career, but I took to it immediately and now work part-time here in a paid job. Previously, I couldn't send an email and didn't know how to speak professionally on the phone. Now, I feel like I have a firm career where I'm building experience all the time. I love it."
City of Bristol College, like others, says such measures are simply an attempt to be as creative and flexible as possible as it endeavours to help the UK respond to the economic challenges it faces. Only time will tell whether their efforts pay off.