Extending the working week and offering young people virtual work experience are just some of the creative solutions being considered by Oxfordshire businesses in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
As some sectors began to return to work this week, employers’ thoughts are turning to how to retain and nurture skills among the county’s workforce. This was the focus of the latest digital Q&A session led by OxLEP – ‘What impact has coronavirus had on Oxfordshire’s workforce?’.
Panel member Sarah Jaycock, Executive Director of Formula 1 motor racing supplier High Spec Composites in Bicester, said: “The majority of our staff have been furloughed, and we’ve used the time to strengthen our business model – as well as redeploying our skills into other sectors such as providing PPE.” Her employees have been learning about the business and the sector online as well as boosting their health and safety skills while the company works out plans for a safe return to work that may include seven-day shift patterns.
Tech businesses such as web developer Olamalu have managed the new dependence on technology well, but, according to co-founder and OxLEP panellist Kate Berman, the situation has exacerbated the already acute shortage of technical skills. “We’re looking at setting up a virtual work experience week for school leavers. There are always opportunities - two of our employees are doing online degree apprenticeships with the Open University so they have managed to continue their learning.”
Sarah Jaycock, who is a volunteer Enterprise Advisor to Bicester School, is also considering how High Tech Composites could offer virtual work experience, by for example, giving young people an online tour of the facility, and encourages other employers to do the same. “We can still offer meaningful engagement with one-to-one Q&A sessions, and interview practice.”
Richard Byard, OxLEP’s Director of Business Development, said that while sectors such as retail and the visitor economy were hard hit, people with skills in those areas could find work in others such as health and social care, logistics, IT and seasonal food production which are struggling to recruit. “Those sectors still need customer and front-of-house skills,” he said.
Maninder Hayre, Head of Delivery for the National Careers Service in South West and Oxfordshire, which helps broker services between employers seeking workers and people looking for jobs, agreed: “Our advisors are brilliant and can help people identify skills they never knew they had. People can access lots of online learning to update their CVs and be ready to mobilise quickly.”
A virtual job fair, held by the National Careers Service, has been very successful in job-matching and Maninder’s team is developing a regional version that will help bring together the area’s employers and job-seekers.
Oxfordshire has one of the UK’s highest levels of employment and rates of business success and some are concerned that the effects of the pandemic may accelerate the skills gap. “We need to be patient through the next three months, and to continue to be creative,” advised Maninder. “It will be a slow, staggered return,” agreed Sarah Jaycock. “But in 12 months we will be seeing the new normal.”
Richard Byard was optimistic about the future of the county, where 50,000 new jobs were created between 2012-17.
“We are moving from response to recovery. I can see a renewed economy built on our learning from this experience, with more collaboration and sharing, underpinned by creativity. Oxfordshire remains well-positioned to move out of this crisis period and will continue to have opportunities for young people and those who are transitioning to new careers and jobs.”