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1,000 strong and counting

The South West-based social enterprise CSW Group is celebrating this month after helping to provide fully funded training and development programmes to over 1,000 participants in just 16 months.

Launched in April 2021, in the midst of the COVID crisis, when many people were still working from home, the initiative has supported over 250 businesses and over 1,000 of their employees in Devon. Its aim is to enable individuals to upskill and help employees to progress in their existing careers or to prepare for a new role. Offering both face-to-face teaching and online learning, the group’s training solutions are aimed at supporting skills requirements across the whole of Devon.

SMART SKILLS, the initiative run by CSW on behalf of Plymouth Council, is funded by the European
Social Fund. It provides comprehensive access to fully funded courses delivered by experienced
learning providers that enhance individual, business, and regional skill sets.

The SMART approach is innovative in that it aims to boost growth and jobs in Europe by enabling
each region to identify and develop its own competitive advantages. Through its partnerships it brings together individuals, local authorities, academia, and industry all working towards long-term growth strategies. By identifying key sectors and regional strengths, courses are devised and delivered that boost local development and achievement and the types of businesses getting involved straddle all industry sectors.

From the start of the project, education providers including City College Plymouth, Petroc, South Devon College, Focus Training Group, and the University of Exeter have been delivering valuable courses across a wide spectrum of topics and subjects. The project continues to grow to meet increasing demand with On Course South West joining the initiative in early 2022.

Staffing levels, recruitment and employee retention have become key business concerns over the past few years. The SMART SKILLS programme supports businesses by helping them to invest in their team, improving staff wellbeing, performance, and retention.

It has been amazing to see the diversity of companies getting in touch to explore our courses. Over
90% of those we’ve supported are classified as SMEs and employ less than 250 staff, so it has been
great to provide fully funded courses to local businesses who may not have access to training without
our support.
” Sean Gibson, SMART SKILLS Partnership and Engagement Manager.

We have helped businesses across the whole of Devon but have had significant interest in the larger
cities. We want to make sure that all areas are supported and so we have been attending events and
building awareness in more rural communities. Our aim is to reach even more employers who may be
unaware of the support that is available and the benefit that it offers.
” Michael Sharman, Business
Skills Adviser for SMART SKILLS.

One particular area that the company identified early on was the need for more skilled training in Mental Health First Aid for companies across all business sectors.

Accredited training in Mental Health First Aid is now one of their fastest growing and most in demand courses and the CSW team see better mental health provision in the workplace as a huge part of the programme’s legacy.

Set courses and qualifications are just a small part of what’s on offer. Many companies that have
benefited from the funding available came with unique training requirements and were offered a bespoke solution to match their needs.

Sean Gibson, SMART SKILLS Partnership and Engagement Manager, said: “I would encourage businesses to have a look at the training packages that we have available and if they don’t see what they’re looking for to get in touch. There is a possibility that we have the delivery experts available to create the type of tailored workshops their company needs.”

The programme is due to wrap up in 2023 and so the organisation is urging local, Devon based
businesses of all sizes and sectors to get in touch and take up the funding on offer.

Sean added: “The project has over 12 months remaining to utilise the £3.5million of funding from the European Social Fund. After 2023, the funding ceases and that’s why we are keen for so many businesses to take advantage. There is a belief that access to this level of funding for training may not be seen again, so now is a great time to find out how SMART SKILLS can bridge the skills gaps in Devon and support economic growth.

“To have supported so many people over the past 12 months has been a terrific achievement. It takes time to get a new project off the ground, especially in the midst of a pandemic! With the momentum and interest that we have generated, we’re looking forward to celebrating our 2000th participant in the not-too-distant future.”