As the end of the Brexit transition period draws ever closer, a growing number of regional and national SMEs are calling for greater and more urgent action to help maintain and enhance the skills of their workforce.

That’s according to the latest bi-annual research conducted by the Association of Colleges (AoC), which shows that the clear majority (68%) of SMEs across the country believe that skills must sit at the very top of the Government’s agenda, if their businesses are going to “survive and thrive” in the midst of an uncertain and unprecedented economic and commercial climate, made all the more turbulent by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Indeed, this national survey of SME leaders – conducted by Opinum and released to mark Colleges Week (19th to 23rd October) shows that the impact of Brexit may not even be the single biggest worry for many UK businesses, with more than half (53%) citing COVID-19 as their key concern. More than two in five (44%) say that the skills gap in their sector is likely to increase because of the threats posed by COVID-19, whilst 54% believe that they are going to need to train their workforce to adapt to the challenges and new opportunities thrown up by the virus.

“Skills gaps did not emerge in this pandemic, they are long-standing challenges which have been exacerbated by COVID-19 and the UK nearing the end of the Brexit transition period,” says AoC Chief Executive, David Hughes. “People and businesses need skills and training as an urgent priority if they are going to survive the coming months, and thrive in the coming years.”

In the face of the biggest threats to the UK’s economy and jobs market for many, many decades, Macclesfield College is successfully managing to adapt and tailor its FE and HE offer, its skills training provision and its award-winning apprenticeship programmes to help keep local and regional businesses on track and prepare for the challenges that lie ahead.

This multi award-winning college – currently one of the top 30 nationally for overall achievement (source: Department for Education Performance Tables) – is led by Principal and Chief Executive, Rachel Kay and sits right at the heart of the community it serves. Moreover, the College’s dedicated employer-responsive arm – Maxim Business Training – has played a significant and shaping role in maintaining and enhancing the success and stability of East Cheshire’s economy, which includes approximately 20,000 SMEs.

To ensure that Macclesfield College is always in a position to efficiently address and respond to the diverse skills needs of East Cheshire and beyond, Maxim Business Training has been successful in forging solid and strategic links with key local stakeholders and employers. It also works in close collaboration with the local Chambers of Commerce, Cheshire East Council, regional MPs and other stakeholders to stimulate take-up of apprenticeships across the region.

In fact, Maxim Business Training is the region’s leading apprenticeships provider, with success rates across all age groups standing at an incredible 10.7% above the national average. This encompasses 16 to 18 year-olds at 6.8%, 19 to 23 year-olds at 6.7% and those aged 24 and over at a massive 16.3% above current national achievement rates (source: Department for Education Performance Tables).

Skills training, re-training and apprenticeships all lie at the very heart of the agenda at Macclesfield College, with a broad-based and vocationally relevant course and programme offering that’s been developed in liaison with local and regional industry. This ranges from Health and Social Care to Construction, with an ever-growing number of employers across Cheshire, the North West of England and beyond – including SMEs and large blue-chip organisations alike – all regarding Maxim Business Training as their ‘go-to’ destination for apprenticeship and workforce training programmes. These include the East Cheshire NHS Trust, Direct Foods, Lucideon and ProSeal UK.

Within the last 12 months, Macclesfield College has also developed and launched a raft of new programmes and academies, tailored specifically to local workforce needs. These include the Whites Chef Academy – patroned by local restaurateur and TV celebrity chef, Aiden Byrne – developed to address the shortage in qualified chefs for North-West based restaurants, hotels and other catering establishments.

Delivered in conjunction with high-end employers within the sector including national hotel groups Marriott and De Vere, and high-profile local restaurants and gastro-pubs such as the Mere Resort in Knutsford and The Church Green in Lymm. the Whites Chef Academy fast-tracks training for a cohort of talented young people and guarantees them a paid apprenticeship with a participating employer, with a view to them becoming fully qualified chefs with the skills needed to serve one of the region’s key economic sectors.

Macclesfield College has also developed the aspirational ‘Stay Local, Achieve Higher’ campaign, which aims to encourage and support widening participation in degree-level study across the region. As part of this far-reaching campaign, the College is currently in the process of finalising and introducing a focused suite of bespoke, degree-level courses that mirror the actual needs of the regional economy, as identified by the latest Skills and Education Plan published by the Cheshire and Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership.

“The economic recovery from both Brexit and COVID-19 has to be skills-led, if we are to support businesses and their people,” says AoC Chief Executive, David Hughes. “It is only through training and retraining that we will be able to make sure that people have the skills they need to keep their jobs and to apply for new ones, and that businesses have the employees they need. Both will allow the country to grow back better.”

“As one of our region’s leading FE and HE colleges, it is our duty to provide first-rate education and skills training,” concurs Principal and Chief Executive of Macclesfield College, Rachel Kay. “As has been the case with so many other organisations throughout the UK, 2020 has been a year of immense change and upheaval for us here at Macclesfield College.

“Thanks to our proven skills and training capabilities, award-winning apprenticeship programmes and, of course, the strong relationships we continue to enjoy with local businesses, however, we remain ideally positioned to play a key role in strengthening the regional economy, and protecting jobs in the all-important months that lie ahead.”