Creating solutions to support small firms

Last week, we saw the Assembly Government acting to save jobs at Corus and Ford. However, whilst it is important to support our major employers, but this may leave politicians in a quandary as smaller companies also demand their fair share of support from the Assembly Government.

One solution to this is to act quickly to draw down some of the £4 billion in additional funds that the UK Government has been given by the European Investment Bank.

While the Treasury has been encouraging high street banks to support the small business sector, there is little evidence of this happening to date.

Therefore, rather than relying on banks to pass this directly to customers, the Welsh Assembly Government could insist that the Welsh share of this fund – around £50m per annum – is given to Finance Wales to distribute immediately to businesses here in Wales.

It would certainly show that the Assembly Government can be proactive in taking forward such ideas and turning them to this economy’s advantage.

However, availability of funds may not stop businesses from laying off more staff as economic conditions tighten. For many entrepreneurs, getting rid of staff is the last thing they want to do as many have made considerable investment in training and development of their employees.

Having spoken to many industry representatives during the last week, their fear is that the Welsh business sector will, as a result of thousands of job losses, lose some of the vital skill base that has been built up over time within key industrial sectors.

There may be a solution to such a problem if the Assembly Government is prepared to act with the same speed which secured Ford their £13m grant this week.

As many are no doubt aware, Wales has qualified for £1.5bn of European funding for its poorest areas, with over 40% of this (or £600m) earmarked for education and training.

Rather than watching impotently as firms lay off key workers, why doesn’t the Assembly Government set up a multi-million- pound key fund which enables businesses to temporarily move their workers, during the current economic crisis, onto skills training courses?

Not only would this enable businesses to retain their skilled workers through government support over the next 12 months, but it would provide opportunities for upskilling and, critically, enable firms to be in a more competitive position when we emerge from recession.

It would also provide a boost to the business and training support sector of the Welsh economy at a time when firms may, inevitably, be cutting back on this aspect of their business.

Of course the devil is in the detail, but with the right political will I am convinced that the business sector in Wales would support such a proposal if it was implemented quickly and, more importantly, the European Commission would see this as an imaginative use of their funding at a critical time for the Welsh economy.

Many believe that last week’s job losses are just the tip of the iceberg. However, if Wales can adopt an innovative approach to the current problems and can utilise the funds available to support its business sector, then the impact from the coming recession could be less than we first imagined.

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