From education to employment

Interview: Theresa Grant (Greater Manchester Combined Authority)

Theresa Grant, Chief Executive of Trafford Council

Greater Manchester’s lead on skills and employment tells us why devolution and the changing educational landscape make it the perfect place for young people to begin a career.

Sat behind Theresa Grant’s desk in Trafford Town Hall is a placard referencing inmate rule #21 from the American high security prison, Alcatraz. Just one of the now defunct institution’s infamous rules and regulations, it reads: ‘You are required to work at whatever you are told to do’.

Undoubtedly a tongue in cheek office accessory, the placard’s sentiment couldn’t be further from Theresa’s view of the current employment landscape for Greater Manchester’s young people. As well as her role as Chief Executive of Trafford Council, Theresa is the lead on Greater Manchester’s development of employability and skills – a topic she is unsurprisingly enthusiastic about when discussing the opportunities available to young people in the region.

“Whether they want to go into a trade or a profession, Greater Manchester is a great place for young people because it’s growing,” Theresa says. “We have lots of different industries attracting new businesses to the region so we need young people with all levels of skill. It’s a place where young people can learn and grow, and build the career they want.”

But while the growing number of skyscrapers popping up in Manchester city centre indicate an increasingly attractive and international region, it’s connecting local talent to job opportunities that is her biggest concern.

Following the government’s devolution of powers to Greater Manchester’s Combined Authority in November 2014, Theresa has been entrusted to develop a new regional skills model that brings together businesses and educators across the ten boroughs. Admittedly, the project is not an easy one – hence the government’s decision to develop it first in Manchester – but it is expected to go a long way to addressing the fact that the combined boroughs are well below the national average for productivity.

Apprenticeships feature heavily in the new system being developed, which Theresa believes will benefit young people and their employers, regardless of their skill level or age when entering employment. Nationally, the government aims to create three million apprenticeships by 2020, with the public sector in Greater Manchester already making strides to ensure at least three per cent of its employees are apprentices before then.

While the ‘apprenticeship boom’ is just kicking into gear, according to Theresa, perceptions need to change for this transformative period to deliver true success.

“The traditional perception of an ‘oily’ trade apprenticeship is so far away from the reality of what’s available out there,” she argues. “We need to put some real effort into addressing perceptions, not just of young people in schools but also their parents and their teachers as well. There are some fabulous advice and guidance programmes being delivered in schools currently, but I think we could start earlier and target younger students.

“IT companies, for example, prefer employing apprentices to graduates because they end up having to re-teach graduates the skills the business needs. The result is a workforce where ambitious people are able to get promoted younger, earn great salaries, are happy in their job and contribute to creative projects in an exciting work environment. Schools should be communicating these positive messages about apprenticeships.”

Part of the Combined Authority’s strategy to address perceptions within schools is its ongoing area review of post-16 education and training institutions. The chair intends the review to be the “foundation for a new model system” that will teach skills more relevant to the modern employer, with businesses having a greater influence on the curriculum.

In addition to Manchester’s strong university offering, the new skills model, Theresa says, will ensure a consistent delivery of apprenticeships at intermediate, advanced and higher level, whilst still enabling a traditional pathway to university for other essential skills.

Key to its success will be the engagement of the private sector, many members of which will soon be obliged to take on apprentices thanks to the Apprenticeship Levy coming into force next April. Political rhetoric would suggest that the Levy has put the control in the hands of business, but Theresa recognises that many need to be converted from seeing it as an additional government tax.

“While the Levy process might be perceived to be forced upon them,” she says, “some employers have really embraced it and are engaging with us to see how they can make the most out of the funding to create something new within their business. Once they understand this value then they begin to champion it, despite being reluctant in the beginning.

“The opportunities for apprenticeships will be massive – not just in the traditional vocational areas but right across the public and private sectors. And there’s no reason a small business shouldn’t be able to take on an apprentice – we’d still encourage them to get involved, even if one is all they feel they can manage. All businesses have an entitlement to providing an apprenticeship and even if they’re not paying into the levy, they can access funding.”

Theresa’s task to improve employment opportunities for Greater Manchester’s young people while simultaneously training them in the skills businesses need is by no means an easy feat. She admits that the process of changing a deeply engrained system is already proving a culture shock for some, but sees it as essential teething for long-term progress. Thanks to the influx of IT, Life Sciences and engineering businesses into Greater Manchester over the last decade, the opportunities for young people are as diverse as ever.

“It’s about choice and giving young people enough credit to make informed decisions for themselves,” Theresa concludes. With the new model for employment and skills taking shape, it’s her intention that no young person in Greater Manchester ever has to follow the Alcatraz approach and ‘work at what they’re required to’.

Theresa has been backing a new campaign to change perceptions surrounding apprenticeships in Greater Manchester and increase uptake across the region called The Apprenticeship Hub

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