Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are key employers and contributors to the UK’s economic growth and through exporting they generate additional jobs, higher revenues and innovation. However, a recent survey carried out by Kent Business School shows that changes since the UK left the European Union (EU) and Covid-19 have created additional barriers to exporting and placed new financial and human resources constraints on SMEs.
This raises the question of how best to support those SMEs that are still willing to export. To help find a solution to these problems, a team of experts from Kent – Dr Carmen Stoian, Dr Zita Stone – and the University of East Anglia – Professor Fragkiskos Filippaios – worked on a Kent County Council (KCC) commissioned study.
This study, part of KCC’s Interreg EU-Funded SIE (SME Internationalisation Exchange) Project, used a representative sample for the Kent SME population and an anonymous survey with 316 managers to assess the impacts of Britain leaving the EU and Covid-19 on exporting SMEs.
Some 50% of firms which took part in the survey said that they have decreased exports due to changes since the UK left the EU, as they have faced additional administrative barriers and costs associated with tariffs. Moreover, 8% of firms have stopped exporting, as these also lacked access to specialised workforce.
In contrast, 11 % of firms have used exporting as a strategy to build resilience and increase growth and have started to export since Covid-19. This variety of firm responses to the changes since the UK left the EU and Covid-19 respectively suggests that SMEs require tailored support to their specific needs and stage in the exporting process. In co-operation with the Department for International Trade, Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce and Kent International Business, led by KCC, key stakeholders in the county are now looking at ways to enhance Kent support initiatives considering the above findings.
There are many ways in which SMEs can improve their outlook when it comes to exports. Including:
- Exploring new markets: While the UK’s change in the relationship with the EU will impact exporting to Europe, the geographical closeness and the shared past still offer many benefits. The US, Canada and New Zealand offer a great cultural affinity with UK businesses and India and China provide high economic growth prospects.
Increasing digital skills: To make the best of exporting, SME managers may also need to improve their digital skills and embrace digitalisation which appears to be increasingly important for accessing foreign markets and business growth. Attending digital fairs and other networks may be a cost-effective way for SMEs to find distributors in other markets and enhance exporting.
- Using support services: Finally, as the Kent International Business stakeholders consider how best to address the challenges faced by Kent SMEs, local firms can continue to make the best of a range of export support services already available through the Kent International Business programme, which help Kent businesses with all aspects of international trade (Who can I contact for export support?: Kent International Business). Current programmes of support available include the IMPULS Interreg project which can connect Life Science companies to European business opportunities, the SELEP-funded SEED project offering a range of virtual trade missions to different international markets and DIT’s internationalisation co-investment fund which provides a financial boost to small businesses to develop an export-related activity.