Transforming skills and employment delivery in response to the pandemic - Devon County Council

With the onset of the pandemic, the employment and skills service had to pivot to online and alternative delivery approaches in a very short timescale to continue to support learners, young people and those that were being made redundant or who had lost their business.

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The context

Devon County Council (DCC) is an upper-tier council in South West England – the largest in the region. DCC covers eight districts including Exeter, East Devon, Mid Devon, North Devon, Torridge, West Devon, South Hams, Teignbridge.

The Devon economy relies heavily on those sectors impacted by COVID-19, hospitality, tourism and retail.  At the time of the first lockdown, the council had focused on planning for the impact of Brexit, but the closure of Flybe, the Exeter based airline, was first to hit the economy with the loss of 3,500 jobs of which 1,000 were based in the county’s capital.

The following illustrates some of the impact from COVID-19 (based on latest Nomis and ONS data):

• Overall 2 per cent decrease in employment rate, rising to 16 per cent for the 16-24 age range

• Claimant rate 2.5 times higher than the same time last year, with the highest rates for those 18-24 (6.5 percent), followed by those ages 25-29 (4.7 percent)

• Current furlough rate of 16 per cent (January 2021) down from 27 per cent (from May 2020).

The team

Collectively, the council’s employment, skills and adult learning service (Learn Devon) employs 170 staff, supports 7,000 learners each year and oversees around £70 million investment supporting the county’s employment and skills strategy, Post 16 transitions, inward investment and tourism.  The service also provides operational leadership for the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership's People agenda, which includes oversight of the European Social Fund Programme, management of the LEP’s Information, Advice and Guidance approach, project management of a range of national pilot activity, and research and analysis functions.   

The response

With the onset of the pandemic, the employment and skills service had to pivot to online and alternative delivery approaches in a very short timescale to continue to support learners, young people and those that were being made redundant or who had lost their business. The impact of Flybe’s closure before the first lockdown meant that colleagues within Devon had a very short lead in time to shift services and support approaches when compared to other areas. However, by having economic regeneration, employment and skills, and business support functions in the one directorate, the team was able to rapidly redeploy staff and resources to critical functions and sector. Within skills, community learning staff were redeployed into community engagement activity quickly, whilst staff working on local employment schemes were able to provide redundancy support. Similarly, resources used for Brexit preparatory work and advice to business around skills and business support were rapidly redeployed to intelligence and business continuity services, and to assist with business support and local grant provision and advice more widely. The alignment of economic development capacity (and notably skills and employment) in a single functional area meant that Devon’s service was quickly able to shift focus to provide a response to the emerging crisis, with business advice, redundancy support, digital signposting and intelligence capture and dissemination all established and rolled out within 24 hours working with partners.

This pace of the transformation involved was particularly notable within adult learning service. Prior to COVID-19, Learn Devon (the council’s adult education and community learning organisation) had planned to implement a three-year transformation programme towards digital learning.  Within three weeks of the first lockdown, however, all delivery and learning had been moved online to ensure learners were not left behind, both in terms of their learning and their contact with the council. This was seen as a critical shift as the service provides one of the council’s frontline support mechanisms for vulnerable people and communities. Learn Devon’s focus around employability and SEND learning for those furthest from the market was felt to be critical to maintain, given the likely long-term impact of the pandemic on these groups.

As well as enabling greater in-reach into communities, Learn Devon transitioned from being centre-based to 100 percent outreach based almost overnight, with staff shifting to a digital first approach. This allowed for greater focus on delivery at a time when other services were shutting down. In turn, this also reduced the amount of time staff had to travel across the county leading to more time spent on delivery in the short term.

Pre COVID-19, a key part of Learn Devon’s focus had been an emphasis on non-vocational learning. But the type of demand for learning changed rapidly as the pandemic advanced, with a heightened focus on a digital skills, literacy and numeracy, and employability qualifications, particularly for those that had not needed these skills to keep their job. Areas of new interest included those who were sole traders or who worked in the hospitality sector having to reorient their skills into new. The over 50s were an age group that needed support, as individuals who previously had never experienced any time outside of work were exposed by reductions and closure in lower skilled, lower paid sectors. In part, the curriculum offer had to be redesigned and repurposed at pace to meet this shift in demographics and demand, with the redevelopment of retraining offers to help people transition from one sector to another. 

More widely, the employment and skills service sought to mirror changes with Learn Devon, shifting provision online, working with delivery partners (colleges, national contractors, JCP/DWP) to integrate and remotely deliver their offer, and take a leadership and coordination role across aligned activity. This shift allowed the council to sustain existing delivery activity through the first months of the pandemic, but also left them well prepared to make the most of national opportunities and funding coming through from Government. These included the Department for Education funded Digital Skills Bootcamps and development of sector-based training courses to help people who needed to develop transferable skills to get back into work.

More widely however, COVID-19 highlighted the importance of a comprehensive skills offer, with corporate priorities focused on economic recovery and growth.  This has brought the role of economic development into sharper focus across the county, including the districts and others working more closely though a ‘Team Devon’ recovery approach,  resulting in an additional £6 million invested into the service over the next three years, with additional projects and recruitment of eight additional staff to support wider recovery and employment / skills efforts currently being taken forward. 

The learning

  • The service was well positioned prior to COVID-19, with an influential role both at county and LEP level. However, there was limited incentive to accelerate change in service provision or direction.
  • The acceleration towards a digital service offer and remote delivery approach brought about new practice and thinking and enabled rapid decision making and action. More widely, stakeholders have been more accessible across the area, allowing for better alignment and joint working. This in turn has seen a rapid increase in the amount of shared delivery ongoing, with over 1,500 additional learning spaces created as a result in the past year.
  • The time saved by reducing travel in a rural area like Devon has meant that there has been greater capacity for delivery which has improved outreach activities to reach more residents. Rural residents have seen an increased number of offers in places that they would traditionally have considered prohibitively expensive to deliver face to face support.

In hindsight

Although staff have been resilient and agile, the high demand has left staff and some services stretched. More support for staff in the most impacted areas/front line operational areas would have been beneficial, notably those supporting staff to shift to digital platforms, those preparing and initiating new projects, and for those leading on supporting redundancy and closure processes.

Prior to COVID-19, the service had signed up to a three-year transformation plan to shift to digital delivery. Given the speed at which the service shifted to a digital first approach, it is clear that the reticence for change was more about having the collective will to do it rather than the technology. Whilst this was overcome temporarily due to the immediacy of the crisis, work will still be needed with staff and communities about how a long-term hybrid digital and face to face offer is going to work.

The future

There is some optimism that the economy will bounce back when the third lockdown ends, with the service planning for an extension and expansion of its support services over the next few years. This will include a ‘no wrong door’ approach in linking individuals to advice and ensuring that the council has a single front-facing service around providing skills and employment support to the public. The £6 million funding secured from the council, matched against wider partner funds, will be focused on delivering a comprehensive recovery offer over the next three years with distinct resources to focus on young people, older people (over 50s) and those who are vulnerable and experience barriers to employment. Adult and community learning services will continue to employ a hybrid model in the future, mixing digital with centre-based learning. The new emphasis on outreach will also continue, with a focus upon getting all of Devon’s residents ready to use digital services as readily as physical services.  This will include staff growth around digital capacity and project management, as well as around front line/face to face services with a renewed emphasis on uptake and local delivery. In doing this, the council will seek to build on its reputation as a first responder to the COVID health crisis, taking a leadership role on the rapid roll out of new employment and economic recovery, and seeking to act as first partner on local economic renewal as the world slowly shifts out of the pandemic. 


Phill Adams -

Senior Manager, Employment, Skills and Learn Devon / Operations Lead - Skills, HotSW LEP

[email protected]