University of Lincoln:

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

Two employees looking at a laptop

Following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the University of Lincoln explored 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 ran a project 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 raised for the region’s SMEs.

The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic impact 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 Greater Lincolnshire Area Review 2017 states 'At level 4 [...] only 20 per cent of the population are qualified to Level 4 and above compared to 27 per cent nationally').

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 was therefore a key factor in helping Greater Lincolnshire industries both survive and support local the economy post-pandemic.

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 changed to placing students in projects with employers of under 50 employees.

Historically, larger organisations 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 allows 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, the outcomes from 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 highlighted opportunities was by liaising with the local authority support networks to engage with businesses who were responding to the changing environment, as these had great access to business knowledge, including growth and change delivery.

By working with SMEs students and graduates benefitted from instant feedback of the results of their work, which can be a much slower process in a more structured larger organisation. This approach gave them the opportunity to understand the transferability and value of their skills to graduate employers, and to see the immediate impact that their skills and contributions can have.

An independent evaluation of this project showed that participating students’ knowledge and perception of local graduate opportunities was improved, which should lead to improved retention of graduate talent in the local area. The university is looking to adopt the approach of this project as part of their careers services going forward.

The evaluation also showed that this approach highlighted to local employers the benefit of engaging with their university when looking for employees.

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 local economy.

Published 03 July 2020
Last updated 18 September 2023

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