Business leaders in Dorset have charted a course for a post-COVID-19 recovery that champions investment in skills, young people, infrastructure and low-carbon solutions.
An upbeat Zoom conference – one of Dorset Chamber’s new Business Leaders’ Events – produced many shared thoughts on the challenges facing companies and organisations, and the further measures required to help them as the county’s economy emerges from the crisis.
Fifty-eight participants from a range of sectors attended the ‘Back to Business’ event hosted by Dorset Chamber and Dorset Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP).
Setting the context, Ian Girling, Chief Executive of Dorset Chamber, highlighted the need to maintain and strengthen business support to enable continued access to finance, mentoring and retraining opportunities.
He said there had been more than 400 enquiries during lockdown to the Dorset Gateway – the free business information, advice and support service run by Dorset LEP and Dorset Chamber – adding: “The pandemic has exposed the precarious position of many businesses who are in distress because they have little or no working capital and have seen orders cancelled.”
Ian pointed to data from the latest Quarterly Economic Survey carried out by the British Chamber of Commerce which had shown several key indicators for business performance dropping to 31-year lows, and said that in Dorset there was particular pressure in tourism, leisure and hospitality.
Jim Stewart, Chair of Dorset LEP’s Board, said his organisation’s response to COVID-19 featured additional resources help businesses to cope in the short-term coupled with a focus on longer-term infrastructure and skills investment and a need to create more apprenticeships.
He cited several examples of how Dorset LEP was helping to build closer working relationships between education providers and businesses.
These include support for apprenticeships via Weymouth College and Bournemouth & Poole College, and the provision of incubator space for business start-ups at Arts University Bournemouth.
Jim added: “We are redoubling efforts to identify and fix skills gaps, particularly in marketing, tech and analytical job roles, so that companies can be stronger, greener and more adaptable.”
He also announced that Dorset LEP would be launching a series of webinars and one-to-one business support sessions in partnership with local accountancy firm Smith & Williamson, to assist businesses as they look to trade out of the crisis.
Also at the conference were Matt Prosser, Chief Executive of Dorset Council, and Chris Shephard, Director of Development at BCP Council.
Both answered questions on the impact of the virus on green investment and said new ways of working prompted by the crisis could see less congestion and commuting in future.
At the same time, several participants agreed the move to more home working exemplified why 5G infrastructure and a full fibre network needed to be rolled out across Dorset.
Other points raised included calls for furlough support to be continued after the end of October for priority sectors such as hospitality and the arts.
Discussing support for young people, Paul Tansey, Managing Director of Poole-based B2B marketing agency Intergage, feared disruption to education and the current lack of work experience opportunities would create a, “tsunami of mental health issues for young people.”
It was a point picked up by Michael Johnson, Vice Principal of Bournemouth & Poole College, who called for more collaboration – and less competition – between education providers in Dorset so that more resources could be put into skills training for unemployed people rather than diverting resources away from front-line support.
Three ‘instant polls’ were held during the conference covering general business outlook, turnover expectations and projections on workforce size.
Compared to polls at previous Dorset Chamber events, more respondents anticipated having a smaller workforce in three months’ time but there was a more positive outlook both on general business optimism and turnover forecasts.
Dorset Chamber is also providing a range of support for business and is lobbying at a national level during the crisis.
This includes the Dorset Gateway, delivered by Dorset Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) in partnership with Dorset Chamber, which provides free signposting to business advice and support.
Visit www.dorsetchamber.co.uk for more about support available to all businesses in Dorset.