In July 2020, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a raft of measures to protect jobs and increase training opportunities, so the UK would emerge from lockdown with a better trained workforce and a vibrant, thriving economy.


The BCS webinar ‘The Government’s Plan for Jobs in the Digital Age - Focus on SMEs’ took place on 29 September 2020 with Brian Runciman MBCS chairing the explanatory talk and then a debate.

The panel

  • Anthony Impey: Chair of the Skills and Apprenticeship Board for the Federation of Small Business and CEO of Be the Business
  • Alison Galvin: Chief People Officer Invotra (National SME Employer of the Year at the National Apprenticeship Awards 2019);
  • Tracey Theo: National Account Manager, ESFA;
  • Mark Temple: Digital Ministry and Digital Skills Partnership.

The discussion: What were the top 10 themes?

The panel answered top line questions and took questions from the audience. There was a discussion about the incentives for work and training and an exploration of if enough is being done to support SMEs. Here are the top ten themes, with quotes from our panellists…

1. Signposting for small businesses...

Mark Temple said: ‘I think signposting is the key here. There's an old training acronym of “keep it simple, stupid” and if we can keep the signposting as simple as possible for these very small SMEs, it will make their life a lot easier.

‘So, businesses need to understand what they need. That sounds like an obvious statement, but still many don't necessarily understand what skills they need to achieve what they want to achieve. So they need support in identifying what those skills are that they need in place now. But also, let's find a route to support longer-term skills such as the apprenticeship piece that will give them a much more sustainable business moving forward.’

2. Like furlough, fears the new schemes don’t last long enough...

Alison Galvin said: ‘With regards to the apprenticeship incentives, I think for any of the employers and SMEs who have not embraced the scheme, and have not had an apprentice, that's too short a timeframe to avail of those benefits. So I'd like to see that extended past January.’

3. Businesses are shaping government policy

Tracey Theo said: ‘We’re doing sector growth work, which is focusing on construction, engineering, manufacturing and digital. I know that we've had a conversation certainly with BCS about what does that look like?

'They are doing a number of round tables, which includes SMEs and other organisations to be able to keep passing the message. And when you say to us, that the length of time is not enough - before the end of January - it doesn’t fall on deaf ears.

'It does shape our policy and ultimately shape the programmes that we offer. It's probably first time in my career that that has actually had such a major impact.’

4. Keep incentives simple...

Anthony Impey said: ‘That's the thing that employers really need. Small employers really need to have things joined together. I think you know in the past maybe the skill system has been a bit fragmented and there's been a lot of focus around individual programmes. Even in good times small businesses just care about skills.

‘They don't care about whether it is T level or apprenticeships they worry about having skills in their organisation. So I think it's really good to see everything come together in one place and starting to see different parts of government join together so Kickstart program connecting with apprenticeships. It feels like a major step forward for programs in DWP to be working with programs and DFE. So I think that's a very important step forward.’

5. Looking for scarce skills...

Alison Galvin continued: ‘I think for us the roles that we found difficult to recruit for now, actually existed before COVID as well. Roles like DevOps - they're just little like trying to find hen's teeth.

'As an employer, it’s brilliant seeing all these incentives coming through but I think making it easier. Bring it to a whole new level where it's actually easier for employers just to latch onto this to. We’re busy enough as it is, so actually how do we do this?’

6. Mass unemployment, but also a skills shortage...

Anthony Impey continued: ‘We've got massive skill shortages. So the skill shortages we had in digital before the crisis has actually got worse during the crisis because of the massive acceleration in the adoption of digital and the use of digital.

'I think Mackinsey wrote an article that said in the last 90 days, we've seen ten years’ worth of digital transformation. The last three to six months have seen a massive rate of digital transformation. Like we've not seen before and so now that is a huge pressure on digital skills.’

7. Future-gazing starts with schools...

Alison Galvin continued: ‘A lot of focus is put on Construction and leisure and that side of things, but actually, we should bring it all of the way back down to school. When kids are starting off at, at a young age, there actually needs to be more focus on technology and actually building things from the very start.

'So you’ve got to choose a direction to go in - whether it's by 2028, we are going to be world leaders in AI or whatever - then embedding that actually in the school system from a very early age. I think is one of the areas that really hasn't been addressed properly.’

8. Apprentice training tough in wfh culture...

Alison continued: ‘We've got brand new apprentices that we've taken on during lockdown and we've had to work much much harder to keep them engaged, and to impart our culture and what we’re about, instilling the professional skills as well, because they’re apprentices, they've come straight out of school. So that's much more of a challenge for us.’

9. Digital access, not yet a universal concept...

Mark Temple continued: ‘I think it's the whole apprenticeship piece, or that training upskilling piece that is hugely difficult in the current environment. You can absolutely set somebody up with Technical Training in inverted commas, but it’s softer skills, which really make a difference to a business and the culture of the business as well which are difficult to impart in a virtual manner.

'A lot of businesses will not be fortunate in the way Alison’s business is that they won't have Cloud platforms, etc. So, they won't be able to benefit from the same technology, so it's a tough time to start these processes on a remote basis. So, I think we do need to be mindful of that.’

10. Employers need headspace to plan...

Anthony Impey concluded: ‘Small Business Leaders just don't have headspace. And yet, having the headspace is vital in order to make those plans. The challenge is that businesses are fighting for their survival at the moment. It really is the toughest time of a generation and small business owners are taking the brunt of the challenges. So, survival is the order of business.

‘There is a danger that we start saying, “oh, well, you need to start thinking about apprentices”. The response can be, “actually I'm just worried about getting to the end of the week or the end of the month or maybe to the end of the year”.’

An overview: What is the jobs plan about?

Tracey Theo of the Education & Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) picked up the mantel from Rishi Sunak and ran with the opportunities and incentives that are now available for businesses across the UK. She presented part one.

Attack the skills opportunity

Using the acronym ATTACK Tracey Theo gave the panel a whistle stop tour of the training that has been borne out of the COVID-19 crisis. These include:

  • Apprenticeships
  • T-levels
  • Traineeships
  • Academic route
  • Courses of high value
  • Kickstart from DWP

Job retention

Aside from training, there is a Job Retention bonus for employers of £1,000 for each furloughed employee that is still employed on January 31st 2021. Encouraging companies to think ahead, the government will offer £2,000 to anyone taking on an apprentice under 25 and £1,500 for anyone taking on an apprentice aged over 25.

This money is in addition to the existing £1,000 payment the government already provides for new 16-18 year old apprentices and those aged under 25 with an Education, Health and Care plan - so a young apprentice could come with an incentive of £3,000.

The incentives are easy to access, with 50% becoming available within 90 days. The money can be spent as the company needs for wages, training, uniforms etc. And regardless of whether you pay the levy or not, you can receive a payment for each, newly recruited eligible apprentice.

Using the levy (when you don’t pay it)

While SMEs do not pay the levy, large corporations obviously do - but don’t always draw down the training funding that is on offer. Tracey encourages all companies, who believe they could benefit from having an apprentice, to look into sharing in the levies of others.

There are combined authorities, sector bodies and local enterprise partnerships that all work with large companies to put their uncommitted levy funds to work. Large companies can transfer a quarter of their annual levy fund into supporting apprenticeships at smaller companies. Training providers are perfectly placed to help SMEs benefit from the apprenticeship levy.

National Apprenticeship Awards

Even with COVID-19 it is important to celebrate the apprentices and the companies that make this training scheme so successful. The National Apprenticeship Awards 2020, was launched on 1 September. Inviting nominations in the coming weeks, the top 100 companies will be announced in October with a part virtual, part physical awards ceremony taking place during apprenticeship week, on 8-14 February 2021.

Website: Employer Hub 
Tel (National Apprenticeship Service): 08000 150 600, Monday to Friday: 8am to 8pm

£111m extra for traineeships

In recognition of the tough times and the need to counter youth unemployment, the government is offering an additional £111m to enhance traineeships for 16-24 year old to the tune of £1,000 per candidate. The government plans to extend eligibility to those with Level 3 qualifications and below and to extend the period of training from 6 to 12 months with a minimum of six weeks for a learner to achieve a qualification.

Website: National Apprenticeship Hub
Tel: 0800 015 0600 for advice and support on traineeships.

Kickstart a new career

Kickstart is a scheme launched by the Department for Work and Pensions, aimed at 16 to 24 year olds on Universal Credit and at risk of long term unemployment or for those following training who need additional support to get them into work. Worth £2bn, the programme seeks to pay 100% of the national minimum wage for new young employees to a maximum of 25 hours a week for six months. There is no cap on the number of new employees a company can take on under the scheme.

Find out more about the Kickstart scheme

Supporting redundant apprentices

The severe contraction in the economy has meant that many apprentices, taken on in better times, have unfortunately lost their jobs. The government continues to offer advice and guidance to the apprentices signposting to other services that are available, as well as setting up a vacancy sharing service. The good news for employers looking for apprentices, is that the same incentives can be claimed for a partially trained apprentice as for a brand new one.

Find out more about the vacancy sharing service

Introducing the new T-Levels

The new T-Levels are two-year technical education courses that follow on from GCSEs and will be (UCAS points-wise) equivalent to taking three A-levels. The creation of the courses goes back to July 2016 when the government accepted the Sainsburys panel recommendations to reform technical education.

Traditional education had concentrated on classroom-based learning and theory. However, the new technical levels would be made relevant to school leavers, with direct employer involvement in the creation of the curriculum and 15 sector routeways, grouped by knowledge, skills and behaviours, being phased in over four years.

The new qualifications would also include 20% on the job experience, to compliment the 80% class-based learning. The creation of the T-levels, streamlines an over complicated system which had, previously, ballooned to over 12,000 qualifications for 16-19 year olds.

Government Plan for Jobs

To find out more about the incentives available for retaining jobs and further training or to register to be kept up to date, visit: