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ZeroLight – the business revolutionising global car sales

‘Global North East: Driving growth in North East trade and exports’ is a new report published by the North East Local Enterprise Partnership – in partnership with the Department for International Trade (DIT) and North East England Chamber of Commerce – that outlines how the region can build its competitiveness, drive higher productivity, and create more and better jobs by increasing international trade.

To demonstrate how an increase in exporting in the North East can help build the region’s economy, below is a case study about cloud-based visualisation specialists, ZeroLight, and the company’s expansion into the global automotive market thanks to its pioneering ‘configurator’ platform.


From Lamborghini to Mitsubishi, global carmakers are turning to the talent of North East tech experts to sell cars in the COVID era.

Newcastle-based ZeroLight’s latest project has seen it successfully partner up with online retail giants Amazon, to create a platform for car manufacturers to launch new vehicles to the mass market, with access to the business’ pioneering “configurator”.

The company’s platform recently enabled the new Mitsubishi Outlander to become the first model ever launched on the Amazon Live platform. Car buyers in the USA can scrutinise the vehicle and make modifications before it even goes on sale, and subsequent marketing received by users will all feature the personal modifications they made to the vehicle.

ZeroLight is exporting its services across the world, working with the likes of Audi and VW in Germany, Mitsubishi in Japan, US firms Amazon and Lucid and Italian luxury car maker Lamborghini.

ZeroLight Managing Director, Darren Jobling, said: “Nobody buying a new car ever actually sees their car until it arrives. There might be a model similar in the showroom or one that is the same colour, but then you select your seats, alloy wheels, interior lighting, spoilers and everything else that is a complete unknown until the car arrives.

“What ZeroLight does is allow the customer to see the car they are actually going to buy – not just the model and colour, the exact specifications they have selected, and then all of the marketing or aftersales material they receive will be their exact car too.

“Lamborghini offers more possible combinations of specification than there are grains of sand on a beach, but ZeroLight can deliver that, and because it is in the cloud, we can do it across multiple platforms, so that becomes sharable content.”

The company launched its world-leading 3D configurator in 2020, with all content rendered in the cloud and streamed directly to the user via their mobile phone, tablet, or computer like an interactive video, with no on-device rendering or plug-ins required.

Currently manufacturers or dealerships have versions of a configurator on websites, but the ZeroLight system takes that to new levels, offering “the world’s most advanced car-buying journey” – with the ability to not only design a car, but test out its functions online across digital platforms such as Amazon and Facebook, not just a static company site.

The Mitsubishi/Amazon project in the US follows a similar successful partnership between Zerolight and Facebook for Skoda, last year.

Darren added: “The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on all of industry but hit carmakers and retailers particularly hard. Prior to COVID, buyers visited a dealership an average of seven times before making a purchase, during the pandemic that has come down to 1.5 visits, so the industry knew it had to do things differently and learn how to do it quickly.

“ZeroLight took that interactive experience we have been using in the games industry for years and applied it to the car buying experience. It makes buying a car more personal and more enjoyable and with Volvo predicting that 100% of sales will be done online by 2030, it helps align the industry with the rapid change we have seen in shopping habits over the past year.”

ZeroLight has grown its workforce throughout the pandemic, recruiting 55 new people to its 145-strong workforce in Newcastle over the last year.

It has received support from the Department for International Trade, attending trade missions to China and Japan, as well as accessing funding to exhibit at trade shows in Europe.

Victoria Gemmill, of the DIT Northern Powerhouse Regional Team, said: “ZeroLight is an amazing company with a client roster of well-established global brands, all of which clearly recognise the value of its digital configurator to keep up with emerging retail trends.

“To be recognised the world over for your unique offer is something to be proud of and long may ZeroLight’s success continue.”

Gareth Beese, Export Strategy Development Lead for the North East, said: “ZeroLight must be congratulated for not only growing its global exports, but also its talented workforce during a worldwide pandemic.

“The configurator is clearly a vital tool for carmakers and retailers, who, like all industries, are learning how to operate in the post-COVID world quickly and successfully.”


Read more about ‘Global North East: Driving growth in North East trade and exports’.

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Osbit gets to grips with global export markets

‘Global North East: Driving growth in North East trade and exports’ is a new report published by the North East Local Enterprise Partnership – in partnership with the Department for International Trade (DIT) and North East England Chamber of Commerce – that outlines how the region can build its competitiveness, drive higher productivity, and create more and better jobs by increasing international trade.

To demonstrate how an increase in exporting in the North East can help build the region’s economy, below is a case study from offshore wind engineering company, Osbit, about its recent exporting success, which saw the company create an 800-tonne pile gripper system for the first large-scale wind farm in Taiwan.


In the post-COVID world, where everyone has a lockdown project, one North East company can lay claim to delivering the most impressive.

In 34 weeks, Osbit – which designs, develops and manufactures bespoke engineered systems – created an 800-tonne “pile gripper” system from scratch that is helping lay the foundations for a green power revolution in South East Asia.

The business, based at Riding Mill, Northumberland, is developing a global reputation for innovative engineering solutions, and is gaining plaudits for delivering such an ambitious project on deadline, during the global COVID-19 lockdown.

The pile gripper system is being used to install monopiles, the foundations that support offshore wind turbines, at an offshore wind farm in Taiwan, which is the first large-scale wind farm in the rapidly growing Taiwanese market.

Thanks to the 800-tonne gripper, the wind farm’s 80 monopile foundations are being successfully laid, each of which measure 100 metres in length and weigh in at almost 1,900 tonnes.

Osbit Joint Managing Director, Brendon Hayward, said: “To deliver this project spec, on budget and on time, was down to good planning and, without doubt, the skill and determination of our team who overcame a host of challenges, not least the restrictions the COVID pandemic placed on how they could safely operate.

“Most of the equipment Osbit makes is manufactured in the North East, but because of restricted travel and the cost of shipping materials to South East Asia, our project team instead set up in Singapore and over the course of 34 weeks delivered the pile gripper for installation on a vessel that is capable of handling the largest monopiles in the world.”

The Osbit pile gripper is used to maintain the vertical position of the monopile foundations as they are driven into the seabed.

The gripper is also environmentally considerate, incorporating a “Near Pile Noise Mitigation” system, minimising subsea noise and vibration during installation. The system dampens the energy emitted into the environment, further protecting marine life.

“Everything we do is about effective collaboration, so working with such a tight project team away from our headquarters presented its own challenges,” added Brendon, who co-created Osbit in 2010. “But everyone on the team performed incredibly, adhering to the strict safety guidelines we introduced to protect their wellbeing.

“Health and safety is paramount to us. We developed and implemented protocols to keep our employees safe and healthy and this was amplified for those working in Singapore. We also made sure that every member of the team had an open plane ticket, so they could quickly return home if circumstances changed or COVID protocols were altered.”

The gripper system was successfully completed and is being used by Sapura Energy to install monopiles in the Yunlin Offshore Wind Farm.

Osbit continues to make waves in global markets and the firm recently secured funding to expand its presence in the US, in the form of a business development consultancy contract. 

The Department for International Trade (DIT) is also working with Osbit on expanding its international work in offshore energy markets, utilising the company’s skill in equipment development and expertise in wind and energyinnovations.

Victoria Gemmill, of the DIT Northern Powerhouse Regional Team, said: “Osbit is a great case study of how to successfully operate in overseas markets. Undaunted by the restrictions placed upon this potential project by the most dangerous pandemic in living memory, the company developed sensible, safe procedures and protocols to overcome every obstacle placed in its path to deliver what is one of the most exciting and innovative offshore projects in the world.

“The gripper project is an incredible feat of engineering and skill and is literally laying the foundations for a cleaner, greener planet.”

Richard Baker, Strategy & Policy Director at North East LEP, said: “Osbit is a fantastic North East business, harnessing all of our traditional regional skill in engineering and adding that spark of creative inspiration to elevate it above others operating in its field.

“As the global economy shakes free of the shackles of COVID, I hope other businesses will be inspired by what Osbit achieved, against the odds, to deliver this important, pioneering project.”


Read more about ‘Global North East: Driving growth in North East trade and exports’.

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North East LEP publishes new regional trade and export report

The North East Local Enterprise Partnership, in partnership with the Department for International Trade (DIT) and North East England Chamber of Commerce, has published a new report outlining how the region can build its competitiveness, drive higher productivity, and create more and better jobs by increasing international trade.

‘Global North East: Driving growth in North East trade and exports’ sets out the region’s ambition to increase the percentage of North East businesses that export goods and services from 6% to 9.5% by 2030.

It also sets a target to increase the percentage of gross value added (GVA) from the export of good and services from 33% to 35% by 2030.

The new report, which is funded by DIT and published in collaboration with the North East England Chamber of Commerce, has been developed to align with government’s planned Trade and Export strategy, and the upcoming Northern Powerhouse Trade and Export strategy.

Lucy Winskell, Chair of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “The commitment to drive trade set out in the Strategic Economic Plan would create a stronger North East economy and deliver more and better jobs through export-led growth. We therefore want to support more businesses to seek out new opportunities in global markets.

“This report focuses on the areas of the world where we have the most opportunity and the actions we need to take to grow our economy.

“It shows that the impact of the global coronavirus pandemic and the UK’s exit from the European Union has had a severe impact on the region’s economy, so now is a good time to look to the future and make sure we support business to move forward with confidence.

“Whilst we are seeing positive signs of the economy beginning its recovery, we must take a long-term view on how we continue to strengthen the North East’s position and deliver on the targets set out in the North East Strategic Economic Plan.”

Approximately 4,500 businesses in the North East region (North East LEP and Tees Valley Combined Authority areas) currently export goods and services. In 2018, the North East exported £13 billion in goods and a further £7 billion in services. More than 168,000 jobs in the region are reliant on exporting.

The North East LEP’s report highlights businesses engaged in exporting tend to pay their employees 7% more than the national median wage. They are also 21% more productive compared to the UK average.

Richard Baker, Strategy and Policy Director at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “The government has set out its intention to develop a trade and export strategy later this year and it will be crucial to the long term economic fortunes of the North East that it supports businesses in the region to grow their exporting.

“Businesses in the North East LEP area that currently export goods and services typically generate over £15bn of revenue from exporting each year. We want to see that figure increase, and we want to see more of the region’s businesses actively engaged in exporting, and our region reaching out across the world. 

“We worked with more than 50 exporters, trade groups and research institutions to develop this evidence about where opportunity lies, and the set of proposals to strengthen support in the region. It provides a clear direction of travel and starting point to create a stronger export culture and more coordinated set of support services in the North East.

“By increasing levels of international trade we will be supporting government’s levelling up agenda, and in turn creating more opportunities for businesses based in our region, and those looking to invest here.”

Julie Underwood​, Executive Director of International Trade at the North East England Chamber of Commerce, said: “The Chamber is delighted to be involved in this important piece of work, which reinforces the vital role  exporting plays in our region and how we all need to work together to maximise the opportunities which are available for our businesses overseas.

“To successfully increase exports, we know that a clear strategy is needed which details which sectors and countries offer the most potential and a long term plan to implement this.

“The regional report provides an important step consolidating our collective response and input into how we can drive regional growth through international trade.”

Victoria Gemmill, DIT Northern Powerhouse Regional Team and Head of North East Region, said: “The strategy is a valuable piece of work aligning with our ambition at the Department of International Trade to drive economic growth through trade and investment opportunities and demonstrates the significance of export growth in levelling up.

“Through targeting sector and market specific opportunities as well as building export capabilities of local businesses, we can collectively enable the full advantage of trade opportunities to be utilised to deliver sustainable growth for the region.”

‘Global North East: Driving growth in North East trade and exports’ sets out five strategic priorities for the region, which include developing the export potential of the North East’s growing sector strengths in advanced manufacturing, offshore energy and subsea, healthcare and pharmaceuticals, digital, and knowledge intensive services; whilst focusing on a small number of opportunity markets.

It also sets out the ambition to create an ecosystem in the North East that brings together existing exporting support, providing a joined up and accessible approach for businesses.

‘Global North East: Driving growth in North East trade and exports’ is available to view here.

The Executive Summary is available to view here.

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North East Local Enterprise Partnership reaction to ONS regional labour market statistics

The North East Local Enterprise Partnership’s (North East LEP) Strategy and Policy Director, Richard Baker, has commented on today’s regional labour market statistics, released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

“As we mark the anniversary of the first lockdown, today’s data release is a timely reminder of the changes which COVID-19 has meant for our labour market. It provides the latest official data which includes regional employment information for the three months up to and including January 2021 and also annual comparisons.

“In the most recent months, the headline data has been stable. The employment rate in the North East region, which includes the North East and Tees Valley LEP areas, remains the lowest in England at 71.3 per cent, 0.1 percentage points higher than in the last quarter but 0.4 percentage points down on a year ago.

“The region has the second highest unemployment rate (6.2 per cent of the economically active) and the highest proportion of working age people who are economically inactive (23.8 per cent). Almost 30,000 workers in the region have been made redundant during the past year.

“However, some of the recent impact of COVID-19 has been masked by an increase in the use of furlough in the region. Over 114,000 North East employments were furloughed at the end of January, more than double the total of three months earlier. Most furloughed workers continue to be classified as employed in the official statistics.

“The impact on different groups in our population has been different. Younger people have experienced particular challenges both in employment and training and there have also been different patterns in the impact for men and women in the past year. The number of unemployed women has increased by 14 per cent, while male unemployment is lower (by about 8 per cent). Almost 52 per cent of furloughed workers in the North East at the end of January were female.

“The progress we are seeing towards the lifting of lockdown restrictions offers hope for the thousands of businesses unable to trade. Support for these businesses remaining under restrictions needs to continue.

“The North East LEP will continue to work with government as we look to drive forward our economy and address some of the key challenges which COVID-19 has created in our region.”

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NewcastleGateshead Quays regeneration scheme awarded £7m from government’s Getting Building Fund

NewcastleGateshead Quays – the landmark arena-led regeneration scheme on the banks of the NewcastleGateshead quayside – has been awarded £7m from government’s Getting Building Fund to support the creation of the new events destination and a new link road connecting Baltic Quarter with the A184 and Felling Bypass.

The North East Local Enterprise Partnership (North East LEP) manages the Getting Building Fund in the North East LEP area, which comprises Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside and Sunderland. The North East LEP Investment Board approved Gateshead Council’s funding application in December 2020.

Andrew Moffat CBE, Chair of the Investment Board at the North East LEP, said: “The Getting Building Fund was created to provide investment to shovel-ready infrastructure projects across the country that will help boost regional economic growth, fuel local recovery and create jobs.

“NewcastleGateshead Quays is a hugely significant project not just for Gateshead, but the North East LEP region as a whole. The £290m regeneration scheme is expected to create around 2,000 new jobs in the North East and provide a £60m annual boost to our local economy.”

£5m from the Getting Building Fund has been awarded towards the creation of a new North South link road in Baltic Quarter. The new road will connect Gateshead Quays with the A184 and Quarryfield Road, leading to the Felling Bypass and across to the Freight Depot strategic housing site. The plans also include a new Green Blue corridor, containing new landscaped walking and cycling routes, and the provision of habitats that encourage biodiversity.

A further £2m has been awarded towards critical infrastructure works around the construction of the new arena, exhibition and conference centre, hotels, multi-storey car park, and public spaces.

The planned Arena and Conference and Exhibition Centre project has previously been awarded £5m through the Local Growth Fund in 2017.

Cllr Martin Gannon, Leader, Gateshead Council said: “A lot of time, hard work and commitment has been put into producing a plan for the growth and prosperity of Gateshead and the region. These funds will be vital in achieving our ambitions for the wider Quays project and borough as a whole. We are aiming to future proof Gateshead and improve connectivity and infrastructure. This investment will go some way to realising those plans and help attract leisure and business visitors to the North East.”

The North East LEP region was awarded £47m through the Getting Building Fund with the North East Local Enterprise Partnership increasing the fund to £55m by releasing an additional £8m from the North East Investment Fund.

The 17 projects put forward for the North East LEP area are expected to create more than 4,000 construction and permanent jobs; unlock more than 19,000 sqm of commercial space; assist more than 3,000 learners; improve or construct 4.2km of roads, cycle lanes and walkways; and further strengthen the North East’s green energy sector.

The government’s £900m Getting Building Fund was announced in August 2020 as part of its package of support to kick-start the economy, create jobs and help areas facing the biggest economic challenges as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

For more information about the Getting Building Fund, visit www.gov.uk.

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In conversation with Linda Conlon, Chief Executive of the International Centre for Life, about inspiring young people through careers education

The world of work today is very different to the one I first joined. It’s estimated young people can expect to change careers between five and seven times, and at least two of those will not be of their choosing. Looking back with what may be rose-tinted glasses, it seemed easier to move around and experience different jobs when I began my career.

I think if I was looking to offer some general advice to young people today it would be to keep your career options open. Don’t close them down before you have to and focus on one specific area.

It’s a positive thing to sample different work environments. I’ve worked for a multinational company, the government, a regional development agency, and for a number of years I ran my own marketing consultancy, which allowed me to work with a range of businesses and clients.

It’s not always about what you do, but the environment that you work in. If you’re happy and comfortable in your chosen environment you feel like you belong, and that gives you the best chance of a fulfilling and rewarding career.

It always strikes me as sad when some people are stuck in jobs they don’t like. You spend more time at work – in normal circumstances – with your work colleagues than you do at home. Why then would you do something you don’t enjoy?

When I was at school, I didn’t really benefit from any specific careers advice; there certainly wasn’t a sustained programme to recognise talent. Someone would come to the school for half a day and ask what you liked doing. I do remember someone saying they wanted to travel and they were advised to be a bus driver.

It was also quite common at the time to choose between arts-based or science-based subjects. Now, people don’t necessarily have to do the classic trio of subjects – maths, physics and chemistry. People can choose to study a mix of subjects that gives them a breadth of knowledge.

It’s really important to introduce people to the world of work from an early stage and that’s something we try to do in the centre’s visitor attraction, Life Science Centre. We offer an informal learning environment and we want to inspire people when they visit, ignite their curiosity and get them thinking in different ways. We encourage people to think creatively and imaginatively. Those skills are important in the world of work, particularly in science.

We have a mantra at Life Science Centre, which is ‘hands on, minds on, hearts on’. I firmly believe people learn better when they’re actively engaged in something that interests them.

It’s also important to say it’s okay to not know what you want to do in the future; people shouldn’t be worried or ashamed about that. Take your time and get it right.

We often talk about change in the workplace, and we’re currently seeing that at an unprecedented rate. That’s why I think young people should be flexible and not take themselves down a route they’re not sure of.

Parents have an important role to play in that, too. Young people often find they move unconsciously down a career path prompted by their parents.

Sadly, stereotypes still prevail in the science and technology sector, and some of that can come from parents, especially those without an interest in the area. That can discourage young people from pursuing STEM subjects, so we need to help students and their parents understand how science qualifications can stand them in good stead across many different careers.

In the gaming sector, for example, a large majority of people have qualifications in maths and physics. Unfortunately, young people don’t often make the connection between those exciting, emerging jobs and science subjects.

I’m often asked about my role within the science sector, and what skills and qualifications it takes to become a chief executive.

The first skill is to learn from your mistakes. We all make them, but it’s how you learn from the experience that’s important. I think it also benefits your staff to see someone in a senior leadership position make a mistake and own up to it. It gives them the courage to do the same.

Something that’s always been, and will continue to be important, is communication. It’s essential to be able to explain to people not just what, but why they’re doing something. When people don’t know what’s happening, they fill in the gaps themselves. Communications is something I feel I have a particular strength in, as I worked in the industry for a long time. I believe communications should be frequent, honest and simple.

Developing effective relationships is vital, too. I think a lot of people forget when you have a relationship with an organisation, it’s with the people within it.

Whilst it might sound obvious, listening skills are very important. If you think about our current situation, senior leaders need to understand how it’s impacting staff, their families and their lives. You only get that from listening.

You also need to take risks, and that’s something we’re very good at in Life. As a not-for-profit independent trust, we have a lot of autonomy and entrepreneurial spirit. We used that to adapt during the coronavirus pandemic to become an NHS large vaccination centre.

Taking risks fits with my next attribute, which is thinking outside the box. Despite being a not-for-profit, we think commercially at Life. By making a profit we can improve and expand the job we do – and do it better. That’s why it’s key to learn from other sectors and other businesses.

If I wasn’t chief executive of Life, I’d like to be either a wildly successful criminal barrister, or a wildly successful crime fiction writer. I’m always told only a small handful of people become successful criminal barristers. I’d definitely want to be one of the rich ones.

Linda Conlon is Chief Executive of the International Centre for Life, which opened in May 2000, with the purpose of inspiring everyone in North East England to explore and enjoy science and to discover its relevance to their own lives.

Linda is the first woman from Europe to be elected as Chair of the Association of Science and Technology Centres (ASTC), a body which represents more than 600 centres from over 50 countries. Linda is also a former board member of Ecsite, the European network of science centres and museums, and former Chair of its UK equivalent.

In recognition of her outstanding service to science and science education in North East England, she was awarded an MBE in January 2016.

www.life.org.uk

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Investing in infrastructure key for North East’s economic recovery

By Darren Laybourn, Director and Regional Strategic Lead at Turner & Townsend, and North East LEP Business Growth Board member.

Manchester’s skyline is often used to illustrate how well the economy is performing in the North West. The sight of tower cranes and new buildings appearing across the city suggests a high level of confidence from inward investors, and a vibrant, growing business community.

The construction industry can be a good indicator of a region’s economic health, which is why there has been so much focus on infrastructure and building back better from the coronavirus pandemic.

During the first national lockdown, the construction sector was one of the few areas of industry able to fully continue working. Government further bolstered the sector by investing millions of pounds in supporting infrastructure projects across the UK, including here in the North East, through the Getting Building Fund.

A booming construction sector gives confidence to the business community, particularly startups and SMEs. It encourages businesses to continue to invest in staff, which is vital in helping retain skills and talent in the region.

The UK’s exit from the EU has brought about new labour regulations that if not managed correctly, may result in a shortage of skills in some areas of the country. At a time when we’re looking to recover quickly from the coronavirus pandemic, it’s important we don’t develop a regional cold spot in terms of skills and labour.

The construction industry in the UK accounts for 10% of total UK employment – approximately three million jobs.* It also supports a wider ecosystem including delivery partners, supply chains – even coffee shops that serve workers on their lunch breaks. And it doesn’t stop there. The construction industry is the catalyst for creating new jobs in the longer term too, be that through new office spaces, business parks, enterprise zones, etc.

Cities like Manchester, and Leeds have gained the confidence of investors and the business community. That’s reflected in the amount of investment in new infrastructure projects across both destinations. If we’re going to compete with that we must maintain a good base of capital projects in the region and build back from the coronavirus pandemic.

There are already some fantastic examples of regeneration in North East England. Newcastle Helix has helped grow the region’s health and life science sector by creating an environment where academia and business can collaborate and drive forward innovations in data science, urban science and life science.

In Newcastle upon Tyne, work is beginning at pace on the transformation of East Pilgrim Street. The £100m project will introduce new offices, bars, restaurants, car parks, and housing in the city centre. The first phase of the project will see the creation of a new landmark, 14-storey, Grade A office building.

Across the river in Gateshead, the £290m NewcastleGateshead Quays regeneration scheme is expected to create around 2,000 new jobs in the North East and provide a £60m annual boost to the local economy.

Projects of this scale and ambition have increased confidence in the North East, resulting in more inward investment and more job creation, which maintains and, in some cases, grows those important skills.

The focus of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership on investment and infrastructure is at the heart of the region’s Strategic Economic Plan. Moving forward, we need to continue the successful delivery of funding programmes in the North East – including the Local Growth Fund. We also need to develop a regional project pipeline and support SMEs in the North East to bid for local work.

Earlier this year the North East COVID-19 Economic Response Group – which comprises the North East LEP, CBI, North of Tyne and North East Combined Authorities, the region’s universities, with the support of industry – submitted its North East Recovery and Renewal Deal to government, asking for a £2.8bn investment to support the North East’s economic recovery from COVID-19.

Building infrastructure to lead transformation and encourage future investment is a key theme in the deal. It is this that will help the region bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic and support future growth and investment in the North East.

Darren Laybourn is Director and Regional Strategic Lead at Turner & Townsend, and a Business Growth Board member at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership

*(source: https://www.designingbuildings.co.uk/wiki/UK_construction_industry)

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Celebrating careers education in the North East during National Careers Week

Michelle Rainbow, Skills Director at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, welcomes the start of National Careers Week 2021.

Today marks the beginning of National Careers Week, a celebration of the importance of good careers guidance, and the resources available to help students make more informed decisions about their futures.

Running from 01-06 March, it’s an opportunity to highlight the role careers guidance has in helping young people prepare for the world of work, as well as shining a light on the many and varied routes to employment.

National Careers Week is also about supporting teachers and educators to access the wealth of free resources available to help them deliver quality careers education in schools and colleges – something the North East LEP has been leading in our region through North East Ambition.

Finally, it provides businesses the chance to engage with students and the education sector about the employment opportunities available for young people within their organisations.

Throughout this week we’ll be highlighting the different ways the North East LEP is working in partnership with education and business to improve young people’s understanding of the world of work.

Each day we’ll focus on a different audience: primary, secondary, higher education, further education, and businesses. We’ll highlight some of the progammes and initiatives led by the North East LEP, and those by our partners in education and industry, that are helping young people make more informed choices about their future.

We’ll highlight the success of the LEP’s Career Benchmarks Primary Pilot, which is raising the aspirations and broadening the horizons of North East primary school pupils. We’ll also share details of North East Opportunities, a new website delivered in partnership with NP11 that provides information for students at school leaving age about traineeships, apprenticeships, T-Levels, further/higher education, and other academic and vocational routes to employment.

Underpinning National Careers Week is its alignment with the Gatsby Benchmarks. The North East LEP was instrumental in delivering the Good Career Guidance Benchmarks pilot in partnership with the Gatsby Foundation, and it’s fantastic to see the benchmarks are now central to the success of careers education in England.

Schools, colleges, universities and businesses are all invited to take part in National Careers Week. Join the conversation on social media using #NCW2021 and don’t forget to visit www.nationalcareersweek.com where you can download toolkits to help promote your involvement.

The North East LEP is proud to support National Careers Week and champion the amazing work done by our educators and business community to improve skills and opportunities for young people.

By helping our students better understand the employment opportunities available in the region – and the pathways to reach them – we will help create more and better jobs for the North East and grow our economy.

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Delivering apprenticeships during the coronavirus pandemic

Abigail Cook joined NEL Fund Managers in 2017 as a Level 2 Administration Apprentice. On completion of her Level 2, Abigail immediately progressed to Level 4, which she successfully completed during the coronavirus pandemic.

Yvonne Gale, Chief Executive Officer of NEL Fund Managers, and Abigail Cook, Investment Associate at NEL Fund Managers, discuss the impact COVID-19 has had on apprenticeships, and how organisations have adapted to ensure apprentices and employers continue to benefit from this important route to employment.

Yvonne Gale, Chief Executive Officer

What immediate impact did the coronavirus pandemic have on the delivery of Abigail’s apprenticeship?

At the time when the coronavirus pandemic began, Abigail was right at the end of her Level 4 apprenticeship. At that stage there’s a final completion assessment that includes observation in the workplace.

Obviously that couldn’t happen, so the main disruption was the timescale for moving Abigail onto her Level 7 apprenticeship. We couldn’t get the paperwork signed off on Level 4, so we couldn’t get her enrolled for Level 7.

We were also in the process of moving to a new specialist training provider who could deliver Level 7. The new provider was unable to enroll Abigail onto the new apprenticeship programme until they had official sign off the Level 4 NVQ, and that was on a backlog of around six-eight weeks.

It was just unlucky timing as that was in March/April 2020.

Did NEL Fund Managers benefit from continuing the apprenticeship during the coronavirus pandemic?

Abigail is currently in a developmental role and we know it’s really important that she keeps getting opportunities to learn so putting her apprenticeship on hold could have affected its momentum and her motivation. We were keen COVID-19 didn’t disrupt that and that we could keep it moving forward.

I actually spent a lot of time working with the new training provider, Kaplan, to make sure it could continue. During the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic everything was temporarily disrupted and for people in a developmental role it’s important they don’t feel like they’re going to be left on the sidelines. Apprenticeships could have been something that was easily left on the shelf but we didn’t want to do that; we felt it was really important to keep pushing to make sure it continued.

Why has NEL Fund Managers chosen to invest in apprenticeships?

There are multiple reasons. NEL Fund Managers does a lot of technical work and we need technical skills. Whilst the Level 4 apprenticeship has given Abigail a good grounding we spotted an opportunity for her to move from an administration role to a technical role.

Although we do a lot of learning in the workplace, I think it’s really important people have external learning as well. People in a developmental role will bring improvements to processes as they go, so if they’re only learning in the workplace, where are they going to get that knowledge? We really want people to experience that cross-pollination from training in the workplace in addition to the external perspectives offered through an apprenticeship.

Another reason is that NEL Fund Managers focuses a lot of emphasis on staff retention; over 50% of our staff has been with us for ten years or more. You can’t just assume people will stay, you have to offer them progression and the best way to do that is through training. We’ve got a very long history of that at NEL Fund Managers; everyone in the business has done a lot of training. We’re keen to support people who want to continue to learn and develop because we want to keep those members of staff and we want to keep their skills too.

The other benefit is that apprenticeships offer a structured programme and for small businesses, it’s quite difficult to deliver a three-year structured training programme. Going onto a planned apprenticeship means someone takes on the care of that structured programme for us, and makes sure it happens.

Abigail’s apprenticeship is in accounting and we have several accountants here in the business and that have all learnt through the apprenticeship route. We know it works and there’s tradition there. Because we benefitted from it, we want the next generation to benefit from it too.

Abigail Cook, Investment Associate

What changes did you have to adapt to in order to complete your Level 4 during lockdown?

Towards the end of my Level 4 there was a series of final observations that had to be done. My assessor, Olivia, couldn’t come and visit in person so we had to think of new ways to get the observations done, and that was mainly through Zoom and Microsoft Teams. We had professional discussions that were then recorded and uploaded to the portal that stores evidence of all my work.

I redid one module for my technical certificate and found I actually had more time to do research as I had fewer personal commitments because of lockdown.

Did you find it challenging to move to a home learning / working model?

It wasn’t necessarily challenging, just very different. I’m mainly office based unless I’m attending meetings, and my bedroom has turned into a home office, which is working well now. There were some challenges at the beginning with parents and younger siblings all working/studying from home, and we invested in some new WIFI.

A lot of the work we do at NEL Fund Managers, such as getting wet signatures on documents and having investment files signed off, had to be adapted to be digitised, and that took a lot of work initially. But since then it’s a case of pressing a button and sending it off via email to someone. It was challenging at first but we’ve all adapted to the new processes we’ve developed.

Doing some of the technical learning at home has been hard as normally you might want to sit with someone to go through it. When we are doing revision sharing now it’s about sharing screens on Teams. As a learner I’d prefer to do some of that in person.

The Zoom sessions we’ve been doing have been really interactive but it’s not quite the same as being sat in a classroom being able to ask your peers questions.

Yvonne Gale – We actually picked Kaplan as they were the only training provider that could offer us classroom learning in Newcastle. It’s a three-year programme so I’m hopeful we can go back to a classroom model. Abigail, and our other accounting apprentice, Mike, actually requested classroom learning when we were looking at providers so it’s a shame we’re not able to offer people their preferred method of learning at the moment.

Why did you choose to complete an apprenticeship over another route to employment?

I originally went to sixth form after doing my GCSEs to study AS levels but after my first year I questioned why I was doing them. At the time I also had a part time job and was enjoying the work ethic, as oppose to full-time study.

I saw the Level 2 apprenticeship advertised at NEL Fund Managers and even though it was a very different environment, after my interview I thought ‘yes, I’d like to work here’. Thankfully Yvonne and Suzanne took me on, which was great.

An apprenticeship allows me work and earn whilst I’m studying. Being in secure employment – as opposed to a university experience with a part time job and a lot of debt – seemed really attractive to me.

It was also encouraging to learn other people in NEL Fund Managers have been apprentices as well. That showed me there is a lot of scope for development here and NEL Fund Managers – as an employer – are very encouraging.

Yvonne Gale – Abigail has gone from working part time in hospitality to doing a postgraduate qualification in four years – and she’s skipped all the student debt.

The apprenticeship system really works for us as an employer too. The course she’s currently doing – had we been paying that ourselves – would cost £20k. For a small business that’s a huge amount of money. Because of the apprenticeship system we’ve been able to get that for 5% of the cost – so it costs us £1k for a £20k piece of training.

And Abigail is getting £20k worth of training, and she’s not having to pay for it.

What are your career aspirations moving forward?

Ideally I’d like to move into more of an investment executive role, managing my own investment opportunities and working with yet more growing local businesses. I’m definitely getting the skills I need through my apprenticeship. The amount I’ve learned is really helping me develop in my current role.

I’d like to finish the current apprenticeship in the next three years and move into a permanent investment executive role. In the long term I’d like to continue at NEL Fund Managers and see what other progression opportunities there are.

Find information and guidance for businesses on hiring an apprentice on the North East Growth Hub Apprenticeship Toolkit.