In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Exeter City Council and Exeter Chamber of Commerce have worked in partnership to launch Exeter Works, an online and physical advice hub to support people in the Greater Exeter area who need advice and guidance on a range of areas related to skills and employment.
During 2020, the council closely monitored the effects of the pandemic on the workforce and residents of Exeter. Universal Credit claimants in Exeter more than doubled, rising from 1460 (1.6%) in February 2020 to 3820 (4.3%) in August 2020. Whilst this has now dropped to 3060 (3.4%) in June 2021, there are still significant challenges in moving those people off Universal Credit and into the labour market.
The furlough figures for Exeter were also monitored and at their peak were 17,400 (30% of the workforce) in August 2020. The council was concerned for those people on furlough and the impact that these developments would have on their longer-term employment prospects. Particularly those that were furloughed for significant periods of time and would need more support to return to work.
Exeter had also suffered a significant economic shock just prior to the pandemic with the sudden closure of Flybe, a major employer in the area. The council responded quickly to support as many employees as possible, but was also mindful that losing their jobs overnight, followed by a global pandemic would have a significant impact on those affected.
In response to this challenge, Exeter Works was designed to be a service for anyone (resident or business) who need to access the support on offer - no eligibility criteria, no checking, just support where it was needed most.
The online resource Exeter Works launched in late October 2020, and the physical hub opened in the centre of Exeter in April 2021.
Initially, the website was launched to support individuals and businesses to navigate the range of support on offer in relation to employment, skills, training etc. This was designed with a view to simplifying the process and providing access to the most appropriate support or signposting to the right organisation, taking into account people’s circumstances. The website was also to be used to showcase the wide range of provision on offer - the different organisations that people could approach and the vast amount of options in relation to training. The website was produced with an incredibly limited budget and a significant amount of officer time (both council and chamber) to go live towards the end of October 2020, in line with the original end of Furlough.
Following the launch of the online resource, throughout Autumn / Winter 2020 Exeter City Council worked with a range of partners and in particular Devon County Council and the Department for Work and Pensions to identify additional funding for a physical hub and a youth hub.
The hub opened in April 2021, under strict COVID guidelines and with the support of a wide range of partners. These partners include National Careers Service, CSW Group, Exeter College, Exeter City Community Trust, Proud to Care, Building Greater Exeter and many more. There is an ongoing communications campaign to encourage people to book appointments and access the support on offer. The council has committed to offering the physical service until the end of March 2022, but there are ongoing conversations about sustaining the service.
The Youth Hub Devon service was launched in July 2021 from the Exeter Works Hub and is led by Devon County Council and funded by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). The youth hub is open to 16-24 year old residents of Exeter, East and Mid Devon claiming Universal Credit. The aim is to enable them to access the support and services that they need. This expands on a programme delivered by DWP which already funds Youth Hubs in other parts of the country. The funding provided for this hub also supports two members of staff to manage the running and operations of the hub over the next 12 months.
The council aims to support as many people as possible to access the employment and training that they want and need. Universal Credit figures have started to drop, but not significantly, whilst the number of job vacancies and apprenticeships has continued to rise over the past 4 months. There is frequent feedback from businesses that are struggling to recruit and it is clear that there are jobs available for people that want them.
There is thought to be some 'hidden' elements in the Exeter labour market and that the Universal Credit figures are not necessarily a true reflection - as there may be people who have been made redundant, are not claiming benefits, but are 'taking some time out'. It is also known that there are highly skilled and qualified people who are in what might be considered 'entry level jobs' - having been made redundant, they have taken a job and are possibly enjoying not having the high pressure of a previous role. But this means that they are then 'blocking' those entry level jobs for those that need them.
Ultimately, there is an ambition to reduce the Universal Credit numbers to pre-pandemic levels, support employers to fill their vacancies, improve skills levels, and improve matching of skills and training to employers and jobs.
The impact is constantly being monitored, and whilst small scale, the achievements have been bringing together the advice, guidance and support community to offer a joined-up service, being able to offer a 'warm referral' process on to different courses and opportunities.
You just can't predict the labour market. There is more demand from employers looking to fill vacancies, than could have been imagined when the project was started, and whilst this is fantastic, there is now the challenge of supporting employers to get those vacancies filled.
Everything will always cost more than you think. The project has been able to re-purpose a building and is being generously supported by Crown Estates with peppercorn rent, but there are so many other things that need to be accounted for especially in a COVID-secure world.
It takes time to be able to track and monitor everything fully and this will always need more resource than you first think. Build in time in the project planning to set up all the monitoring and evaluation processes.