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What does Building Back Better really mean for SMEs?


As the country returns to some degree of normality, so the drive to create jobs and tackle the current high levels of unemployment steps up a gear.

For businesses, this cross-roads raises many questions; is now the right time to be investing in staff for the future? What schemes are out there to support businesses looking to take on new staff and get back on track? And how should all this be navigated within an environment of uncertainty?

The Government mantra of ‘Building Back Better’ is well worn and for many businesses may seem a little over ambitious. After all, surely most would be content with ‘Building Back’ – at least in the short term.

But as challenging as it may be, there is a strong argument for thinking beyond the immediate months ahead. Firstly, because of the plethora of Governments schemes and incentives in place to support businesses with their recruitment needs. And secondly, because if the pandemic has shown anything, it’s that people are what makes businesses a success; and investing in them is key.


Significant funds have been directed towards incentivising apprenticeships. Employers can claim a £3,000 government grant for taking on an apprentice, and those businesses that do are rewarded with employees committed to the cause and with a developing skillset fit for the business. Yet recent government figures show that the number of people starting apprenticeships has dropped by 19 per cent since this time last year. And even more worryingly, less than a quarter of starts so far in 2020-21 have been among the under-19s.

It’s understandable that businesses are cautious about recruiting given the uncertainties of the current climate. But for those looking to build a workforce shaped around business need, with a focus on youth and sustainability, then apprenticeships are an excellent option. Apprentices train on the job and can add a huge amount to companies looking to build back better.

For example at Catch22 we’ve recently launched our hospitality apprenticeship offer – Step22 – alongside some big hospitality names including Compass Group, Diageo and Hej! Coffee. Using the apprenticeship levy, we work with businesses of all sizes to source and train great staff in the hospitality sector – a sector which is only set to grow as we emerge from the pandemic.

SMEs who aren’t large enough to pay the apprenticeship levy can benefit from levy-transfer – where they pair up with large organisations who have a levy underspend. Some of that underspend can then be transferred to the SME to spend on apprentices. That mechanism, coupled with the financial support currently available from government to take on apprentice, makes now as good a time as any to explore this option.

Pre-apprenticeship and pre-employability programmes

Taking on someone who hasn’t had experience in the sector or role to which your recruiting is inevitably a risk. But the growth in pre-employability programmes increasingly means young people are able to skill up and get job-ready  – equipping them well for that first employment opportunity. At Catch22 we deliver digital skills training programmes with our partners Microsoft and Salesforce, general employability skills through Barclays Connect with Work and our newly launched Horizons employability programme supported by J P Morgan and Chase is initially aiming to place 400 people into meaningful jobs who currently face barriers to work.

All these programmes work with businesses of all sizes looking to recruit new talent into their workplace – with the knowledge that their person they take on with have been prepared for the job and will be continued to be supported during the first 6 months of their role.


The government’s flagship youth employment scheme – Kickstart – offers 16–24-year-olds currently on Universal Credit and at risk of long-term unemployment a six-month paid placement for 25 hours a week, and a salary at the National Minimum Wage or higher (dependent on their age). This has the potential to make a real difference to young people, but uptake from businesses so far has been relatively low. The London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) found that only 16 per cent of firms surveyed would be looking to take up the Kickstart scheme.

Partly this low uptake may be due to a lack of awareness of the scheme and how it works or the fact that the roles have to be new. But again, Kickstart – if done well – can not only give young people a step onto the employment ladder but can be hugely beneficial to businesses.

Key to the success of Kickstart from both the employee and the employer side is suitability and sustainability. Suitability in the sense of making sure that the candidate matches the role; that they are properly supported before they apply and while they’re in post, and that there is match between business need and employee skillset. Sustainability in the sense that placements are not just for short-term projects that end after 6 months and leave the candidate back on the job market. Roles that evolve over the 6 months and result in permanent posts, or equip young people with the skills to progress onto another meaningful role, will benefit industry and individuals alike.

There are many good Kickstart gateway providers, such as Kickstart Community, taking this exact approach – supporting candidates and employers before and during placements. SMEs can work with these providers to increase the likelihood of their placements being successful.


The Restart Programme is aimed at individuals who have been out of work for longer periods – and is kicking off on 28th June. Across UK regions, there will be a number of providers working with individuals (referred through Job Centre Plus) to equip them with the skills and confidence to secure a job. A key part of Restart will be working with local businesses across all industries to place candidates into suitable roles – so from July, there will opportunities for businesses to recruit directly from Restart in their local area.

Determining the best path for your business needs isn’t easy, and the range of options available adds another layer of complexity. But there is support out there. Attracting the best talent and retaining that talent has always been important for business; and now perhaps, it’s more important than ever.

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What does Building Back Better really mean for SMEs?

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