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Putting SME voices at the heart of course development

How the High Level Skills programme is linking input from local businesses with the courses we deliver.

MIT in Tech workshop group

This support is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund

Nottingham Trent University (NTU) are the lead organisation on the High Level Skills programme, which offers dedicated support, advice and funding to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), enabling them to up-skill their workforce and access the wealth of graduate talent in the area.

The programme is delivered by the High Level Skills consortium which includes Derby College, Nottingham College, the University of Derby and Nottingham City Council.

The programme is made up of two complementary projects. Priority Skills for D2N2 SMEs offers bespoke, employer-led training, career coaching and advice to up-skill existing employees. GRADS for D2N2 offers free and subsidised support to address skills gaps and grow for the future by connecting them to the local graduate talent pipeline.

Embedding co-design in project delivery

One of the aims of both projects is co-design, or putting SME voices at the heart of course and curriculum development. This is done in a range of ways, including feeding information on the emerging needs of SMEs involved in the programme into project development and the courses offered, and into wider institution-level curriculum development cycles.

In addition, we visit and consult with wider employer networks and strategic partners to capture information on needs and to share information about the High Level Skills opportunities and progress.

In support of this, Andria Birch, ESF Programme Manager, has presented to a range of meetings and events over the summer, including a Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) network meeting. It was hosted by a new local business, SynergyNG9, which provides an 'eco-friendly, flexible event and meeting space'.

They offer co-working facilities and a diverse programme of activities including training, coaching, networking, a variety of wellbeing sessions and arts workshops. SynergyNG9 will continue to host a monthly #FSBConnect networking event on the third Friday of each month for those local small businesses who would like to get involved.

Engaging with local small and medium-sized businesses

Over 20 businesses attended the meeting, including several NTU alumni who have set up their own businesses, and they shared information about their business offer and some of the challenges they face around recruitment.

Conversations re-iterated the need for job candidates to further develop softer skills around communication, relationship development and management, which often come with experience but can be a barrier to recruitment and successful retention of graduate talent for the business.

Larger organisations often have the capacity to support continuing professional development and onboarding in a way that smaller SMEs do not, and the need for graduates to develop these skills while in education was emphasised. The support available to SMEs through the GRADS for D2N2 project seeks to address this.

The FSB network event also provided an opportunity to engage with local businesses about other aspects of the High Level Skills programme and resulted in one participant completing a Priority Skills for D2N2 SMEs Women in Leadership course.

The High Level Skills programme continues to add value to the wider work across the sector to support graduate attraction and retention and we welcome and invite feedback from SMEs as part of the co-design process to maximise impact. This will feed into future programme and curriculum development, and will illustrate how SME needs and experience can directly inform education and training provision across the sector.

How to get involved

To get involved in programme co-design or to access other programme support, please contact the ESF High Level Skills Central Team at or by phone on. +44 (0)115 848 8899.

You can also find out more about the wider offer to local SMEs on our website.

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