University of Lincoln:

The small and medium enterprise and surviving coronavirus (COVID-19)

Two employees looking at a laptop

Following the coronavirus lockdown, the University of Lincoln has been looking at how small and medium enterprises (SMEs) can play a key role in attracting and retaining local graduates and supporting their region to survive the economic downturn.

As part of the Office for Students' Challenge Competition: Industrial strategy and skills, the University of Lincoln has been supporting local industries and authorities to develop a strategy to retain skilled graduates within the Greater Lincolnshire region for the long term.

The original focus of this project was to work with larger organisations in the region, as student studies showed that University of Lincoln graduates are often attracted to employers with set graduate training schemes.

In the initial stages of the project, the university therefore worked with larger organisations in the region to:

  • arrange training opportunities and project work for students and graduates
  • stimulate a higher return on graduate salaries
  • develop a greater demand for entry level graduates.

By taking part in training opportunities and industry projects, students and graduates were able apply their own skills and gain meaningful experience.

However, the university decided to refocus its project work in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the particular challenges it has raised for the region’s SMEs.

The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic impact has put SMEs in the Lincolnshire region at risk. The impact of larger businesses slowing their output and limiting investment will have a longer term bearing on SME cash flow and their ability to innovate.

In turn, this has an impact upon the local economy, which already faces challenges in attracting and retaining skilled employees at all levels, especially at graduate entry. Challenges include:

  • a naturally ageing population and fewer young people
  • a geographically diverse landscape, with an expansive coastline and vast agricultural areas
  • the area primarily consisting of a few small market towns and a central, small city
  • relatively low graduate salaries - Lincoln is statistically the lowest paid university city in the country
  • a skills gap at Level 4 and above, leaving local businesses unable to successfully plan, innovate or compete in the wider market.

The large size of the region along with the isolated location of key employment hubs makes it seem inaccessible to graduates from outside of Lincolnshire and there is limited graduate mobility within the area. Longer-term restrictions on travel and a wider economic downturn are also a serious concern.

The innovation and response to coronavirus of the SME market across the whole region is therefore a key factor in helping Greater Lincolnshire industries both survive and support local the economy post-lockdown.

Recognising the importance of SMEs in supporting the region’s economy to survive the coronavirus pandemic, the university’s project team decided to realign its focus away from the larger employers and towards providing business support to SMEs.

Having already completed projects with key, large employers such as the NHS, Butlins, Tulip and North Lincolnshire Council, the focus now is on placing students in projects with employers of under 50 employees.

Historically, larger organisation would have existing policies in place for engaging students for work experience, placements and recruitment programmes. In the changing economy, small businesses moving into new markets or delivering new products may have need for short term support in various skill areas which students can provide.

Making student talent more easily accessible to SMEs will allow local businesses to benefit from the skillsets and resources students have to offer, providing them with the opportunity to innovate and respond to potential market changes.

In doing so, this project could potentially provide both economic renewal for the region and a wider sustainable employment opportunity for local students and graduates.

One of the ways that the project is highlighting opportunities is by liaising with the local authority support networks to engage with businesses who are responding to the changing environment, as these have great access to business knowledge, including growth and change delivery.

By working with SMEs students and graduates are expected to benefit from instant feedback of the results of their work, which can be a much slower process in a more structured larger organisation. This approach will give them the opportunity to see the immediate impact that their skills and contributions can have.

Going forward this approach should increase the visibility of SMEs towards students who are seeking graduate opportunities, and lead to improved retention of graduate talent in the local area.

The approach should also highlight to local employers the benefit of engaging with their university when looking for employees.

The change to a hands-on approach in support of the SME market should allow the project to achieve all of its initial outputs, such as increased graduate opportunities, graduate retention and improved student self-efficacy, despite the challenges presented by the pandemic.

In addition, with SMEs providing more than 95 per cent of employment across all industries within Greater Lincolnshire, the focused support on these businesses will ultimately help to sustain the economy during and after the coronavirus pandemic.

Visit the University of Lincoln's careers and employability webpage

Case study author: Shirley Innes, Project Manager - Careers and Employability, University of Lincoln

Published 03 July 2020

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