THE WRIGHT ANGLE: Training can turbo-charge our recovery and growth

Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck I addressed an audience of young people at St Hilda’s School in Liverpool. As I looked out at the hundreds of eager fresh faces staring up at me, my mind raced back to my early teens when I participated in the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme and was the recipient of the silver medal.

When I heard of the Duke’s passing a few days ago at the age of 99, I was taken back to those days once again. I have kept the booklet and other items from that time. I have lived and worked all over the world but I haven’t forgotten the lessons of resilience and moving out of your comfort zone that process taught me.

And since those times I have never stopped learning, never passed up the chance to have fresh experiences and acquire new skills. It has taught me there are few things more valuable than training and personal development. And the potential gains for businesses are huge.

In the last few days we have seen an acceleration in our emergence from what we all hope will be the final lockdown. We can finally get on with the job of repairing our battered economy. Companies in Knowsley, and across the Liverpool city region, face challenges in the coming months, but also have an opportunity to change, reinvent and enter a new era of growth.

A couple of years ago, I attended an event where I met Steve Smith, the former Olympic high jumper from Merseyside who now runs a successful Prescot-based business called Raise the Bar. It focuses on leadership and management development.

Steve gave me a phrase which we still use at the chamber. It applies to any new idea or decision a company makes. And it is ‘will it make the boat go faster?’. Will what we are doing right now help us achieve our goals?

And I think, as we enter this stage of recovery, it is useful to remind SMEs of the value of training and, in particular apprenticeships. With many organisations grappling pressing cashflow issues, training and development may have slipped down the priority list.

It comes back to the old adage about how people are so often the most valuable assets a business has. In my role as chief executive of Knowsley Chamber the members I have seen enjoy periods of growth are the ones who invest in staff training and development. That is no coincidence.

Not only does training provide your business with the skills it needs to adapt and grow, it also helps your team to feel that they will be an integral part of that success story. They will feel valued and believe they will play a role in the future direction of your business.

A major part of the value of any business is based on the skillset of its team. This offers a big advantage for owner managers when it comes to succession planning. At some point they may want to realise the value of the businesses they have built. An organisation with a strong skillset will be much more saleable.

It is also a big plus for both your existing and potential customers. They will view you as an organisation that is forward-thinking and adaptable. It speaks volumes about your approach and ethos.

The big worry for companies, of course, is they perceive training to be expensive. Certainly training requires an investment, both in terms of time, money and commitment. But there is help available here in the city region.

Skills for Growth is a programme run as part of Growth Platform. Via the city region skills brokerage service you can access free advice and support to identify what your training needs are and, once those objectives are defined, financial support is available to help fund training.

There is also lots of help and support available when it comes to apprenticeships. There is a lot of focus, of course, on apprenticeships for young people aged 16 to 24. Some start at a high level and offer a genuine alternative to university. But apprenticeships have no upper age limit. They can be a fantastic way of delivering training in a cost-effective way for staff of all ages.

Here at the Chamber we use Sysco to deliver our apprenticeship training and they do an amazing job and have an impressive record of delivery. Knowsley Council also offers a scheme where they will help cover an apprentice’s wages. We have had two people at the Chamber through that scheme and they have gone on to secure great roles.

With the extra Government support now on offer, there has never been a better time to consider apprenticeships as a way of upskilling your businesses or organisation. I think the Apprenticeship Levy scheme could do with an improvement. It is seen by some companies as just another tax.

Bigger companies can offer access to smaller firms in their supply chain to their apprenticeship levy funds. That process is not as easy as it could be but if you contact us here at the Chamber we can help you with that.

My time on the Duke of Edinburgh scheme was so valuable and showed me why training and development is so important. Of course the specific skills you learn that relate to your job and the needs of the business are critically important. But it can also be so much more than that.

I found myself immersed in a whole new experience (I also found myself literally immersed when I went kayaking in the Lake District). It was a game-changing experience for me. When you put yourself in a different environment during periods of training you learn more about yourself, what you are truly capable of and you learn from other people.

So I would say to business owners – training does not have to be costly and, as we enter the new financial year and a period of recovery, the dividends you could get back by investing in your team could offer extraordinary benefits in the months and years ahead.