Two ministerial addresses via video and a keynote speech from round-the-world sailor Alex Alley were among the highlights of a content-rich Workforce South Conference that brought together people-professionals from across the region.

Sponsored by Havant and South Downs College and Solent University, the Business South event was an opportunity for business leaders, education providers and HR specialists to gather in person and listen to leaders in their field.

Char of the Workforce South Action Group Zoe Huggins said the conference was both inspiring and energising.

“It was wonderful to be back in the room with people for this inspiring event. The themes were People and Culture and People and Skills and our speakers were able to share valuable insights gained through years of experience working in their field,” she said.

Minister for Skills, Alex Burghart, MP, said the government was focussed on levelling up the country and giving everyone the chance to prosper.

“The Central South has made a good start,” he said. “And with lifelong learning and skills bootcamps, along with our future investment in colleges, there will be opportunities for everyone at every stage and we will have qualifications designed to give employers the skills the economy needs.”

Minister for Employment, Mims Davies, talked about the challenges facing the country but remained upbeat.

“We have more people on company payrolls now than before Covid hit but we know we need to go further,” she said.

Steve Rockey, People Director for Home Grown Hotels which includes The Pig Hotels and Limewood, said the pandemic had allowed them to focus more on their culture and to increase training and development for team members.

“We managed to retain 87% of the people who were with us as we went into lockdown,” he said.

Apprentices have been a shining light for the business, he said and he recommended others to invest in apprentices.

“They have been our saviour and for the last 12 months we have invested even more and every hotel has four apprentices working back-of-house and we have our chefs apprenticeship programme.

“We have another 15-20 starting in March and the good news is, not only do they stay with us but a third of them go on to be promoted – it is the ultimate succession planning,” he said.

Adam Myers, Director of HR Consulting at Stellamar, said diversity was key to success for businesses.

“We know that when women are leaders in business they make 25% more profit than men,” he said.

Ben Silsby, Senior Sustainability Manager for Willmott Dixon Construction Ltd, said his industry needed to reshape how it is viewed.

“Construction recently scored with young people just 4.2 out of 10 as a career choice, Perceptions need changing and we need to let them know that as a business, everything they want to do, we have a role to offer them be it as a bid writer, HR, mathematicians or project managers,” he said.

Philip Tutt-Leppard from 360 Integrated PR, highlighted the opportunity for employers to promote their jobs on the Succeed in the South website.

He explained the site had been created by Business South working in partnership with Solent University and students helped to develop the site during the pandemic.

“Potential user groups are employers, HR professionals, colleges and universities and it will be particularly useful for SMEs,” said Philip.

Mike Gaston, Principal and CEO at Havant and South Downs College, shared the story of how education changed his life and in particular how two teachers influenced his direction of travel.

Talking about the recent challenges for young people learning during the lockdowns, Mike said: “ This isn’t a snowflake generation, this is an heroic generation.

“They are emerging stronger and prematurely wise,” he said.

Keynote speaker Alex Alley gave delegates an insight into what it takes to pit your wits against the elements and ensured the conference ended on a high note.

Steve Jones, MD of Skills for Business, ran a fascinating interactive session looking at the importance of motivation and how it can be mapped within an organisation.

And everyone took part in a round-table session, sharing their thoughts on what needs to happen to ensure the success of the Central South, including their thoughts on opportunities and improvements.

“As business leaders grapple with the challenges presented by the pandemic, they need to keep an eye on the future and how to attract new talent and retain the talent they already have in their organisation.

“We know there is a skills shortage and as an output from the Conference, we will use the insights gained from delegates and set-up a task and finish group to establish what is needed for the Central South and how we can take this forward as a Workforce South Action Group project,” she said.