Colleges Week business survey fears shows skills confidence in colleges

26th October 2020

The Sheffield College has welcomed new national survey findings that demonstrate employers’ confidence in the FE sector to support an urgent need for skills.

Small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) leaders are calling for government action to help them deal with Covid-19 and the Brexit transition period.

Over half of SME leaders say they will need to retrain their workforce to survive.  More than half (53%) say that Covid-19 is now their key concern; 44% say the skills gap is likely to increase due to the pandemic.

The Association of Colleges SME Survey 2020, released to mark Colleges Week from October 19th to 23rd, shows that 71% of SMEs believe colleges are important to business for training and retraining staff.

Meanwhile, 39% say they would look to train, retrain or upskill their employees through colleges, compared to 21% who would turn to a university or 13% online courses; and 44% believe colleges are best placed to skill their future workforce, compared to universities (22%) and schools (21%).

Almost one in two (45%) believe that it will become even more difficult to hire people with the right skills once the Brexit transition period has ended, and that the country’s skills gap will only get worse (44%).

Andrew Hartley, Executive Director of Commercial and Operations, The Sheffield College, said: “The survey findings are a strong endorsement of colleges and their vital role in helping the country get back on its feet again.”

He added: “We understand this is an uncertain and unsettling time given the double impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit on businesses. Colleges offer the vocational education and training that provides employers with the talent they need for a skills led recovery.”

The Sheffield College educates and trains more than 14,000 students a year and supports 2,400 employers. Around 900 employers are involved in apprenticeship programmes and 1,500 provide experience of work or industry placements and related opportunities. Adapting to the pandemic, the College has developed the Ahead programme, which comprises three online employability skills schemes to ensure students are working towards goals and have an employability progression route.

Working with employers to develop the talent of the future, the College has launched a series of employer skills academies  to equip students with the qualifications and skills that regional businesses need.

Eleven academies opened during the last academic year 2019/20, covering sector specialisms such as catering, engineering, hospitality, and information technology, and four new academies have launched this academic year 2020/21.

Backed by leading businesses, the academies are equipping students with industry know-how, and the skills that employers need, helping them go further in their careers. 

Organisations involved include Discovery STEM, Liberty Speciality Steels, Millgate Ltd, MSK Ingredients, WANdisco Plc, PJ Taste, Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, Greene King and Kryolan; and they are now joined by Kier Construction, NextGen, Uniheads and Sheffield Sharks.

Students learn about all aspects of the businesses that are backing their academies, alongside completing a vocational qualification. Employers provide industry talks, workshops and placements to enhance students’ employability skills.

The total economic impact of the College was £282.5 according to EMSI research in 2019; £239.7 million is the amount that former students contributed to Sheffield City Region. Students who achieve a Level 3 qualification will earn approximately £6,888 a year more than someone with no formal qualifications in the region. (EMSI 2019).

Colleges Week celebrates the positive impact of colleges on students, communities, employers and local economies and this year’s theme is #FEHeroes.

The AoC’s national survey on SMEs, conducted by Opinum, provides further evidence of the importance of colleges to the UK’s future workforce; 59% say that it is important that their business has staff with Level 3 qualifications, which can be gained at a college.

David Hughes, Chief Executive, Association of Colleges, said: “The economic recovery has to be skills-led if we are to support businesses and people through this pandemic. 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.”

He continued: “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. Government has rightly expressed its commitment to prioritising skills, but now we need the investment to flow quickly to the right people and places. People and businesses need skills and training as an urgent priority if they are going to survive the coming month and thrive in the coming years.

“Colleges in every part of the country provide first-rate education and skills, working on average with more than 750 businesses in their local community, skilling, and reskilling business staff, helping them to overcome the problems of today and prepare for the challenges of tomorrow. Colleges already do so much to support business and they stand ready to do so much more.”

Joe Fitzsimons, Senior Policy Advisor, Institute of Directors, said: "Skills are fundamental to business, and the coronavirus outbreak has only made this clearer. However, the pandemic has also put further pressure on a training system that was already in need of an upgrade. For many firms, with uncertain cashflow, it's proving challenging to invest further in training staff. Business leaders are ready to work with the education sector and government to ensure we can address crucial skills gaps in the months and years ahead, and the UK's colleges will undoubtedly be a key piece of the puzzle."

Jane Gratton, Head of People Policy, British Chambers of Commerce, said: “To remain competitive in a global business environment, employers will need to invest in upskilling and reskilling people at all levels in the workforce. Business communities will want to see greater priority from the government on further education, digital and technical skills and creating a skills system that is more agile and responsive to their training needs. Colleges are key to boosting skills levels in local business communities across the country.”

For information about the training and skills provided to employers by The Sheffield College, visit or email:

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