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    Sandy Lindsay MBE, Chair of the IoD and North West Business Leadership Team Skills Groups, discusses efforts to close the skills gap in the North West of England, and how businesses can play a more active role in education to benefit the regional economy.     

    It feels like every room I’m in at the moment, everyone is talking about skills. Go to an event about productivity, the conversation inexorably comes around to skills; a ‘future of digital’ event – skills; a Brexit discussion – skills; Northern Powerhouse; Devo Manc…

    For many years, it feels like we’ve hummed and hawed about these ubiquitous skills gaps and, while lots of activity has taken place, they’re still there – like yawning, cavernous black holes, threatening to suck in any progress we make in other areas of our economy.

    In order to put a stake in the ground to try to move this agenda forward, in the North West we bought together the IoD, the North West Business Leadership Team, and the CBI – three organisations that represent a cross section of the region’s leading employers, from micro to major – and ran a programme of research and discussions which culminated in a workshop.

    We questioned what our ‘Northern Stars’ - the employees of the future, currently being honed in our schools, colleges and universities - needed to look like, understand, be capable of and be able to cope with in our ever-changing world (resilience, ambition, agility, as well as the obvious numeracy, literacy and oracy sills).

    We agreed our major concerns and critical success factors - careers advice in schools and colleges and digital literacy for all - and we discussed what we believe are the key issues:

    • Sharing – lots happening but much is localised and short term – how do we share what’s working (and not) so we can all get on board?
    • Scaling – how do we then take those learnings and make the most of those projects that are working and scale them?
    • Signposting – so many companies ‘would like to…’ take on a work experience person, an apprentice, a graduate…but are baffled as to where to start. How do we get better at signposting what’s already happening so more can benefit?
    • System – and most importantly, how do we free up the system (and especially the funding of the system) so that it supports what WE need as a region?

    And we set out the absolute will that employers have to play a key role in making this all come about and the difficulties they’re finding in liaising productively with schools and colleges.

    The Skills Charter, which is the mechanism by which we’ve captured all of these opinions and findings, is launching as we speak and our hope is that we’ll share it with policy makers and educators across our region and nationally to move the discussion on with key guidance as to what employers think good looks like in the world of education and skills.

    For colleges, the message is loud and clear: we want to help. We – your local employers – want to play a key role in helping shape your courses so that they stay relevant to us and other local employers – especially in light of constantly changing digital and tech innovations - and we know you want the same. We’re keen to offer our people to be part of your courses. We’re keen to offer your lecturers mentorships and your leaders support.

    We also want to make the ‘brand’ of apprenticeships far better than it currently is – there are still young people, parents and employers who believe that apprenticeships are for those who are not clever or rich enough to go to university. We know this is not true and we want to help spread this message. We know the apprenticeships being offered by colleges across the land are a vital part of making our future workforce what it needs to be – how can we work with you to spread this word?

    With Brexit on the horizon, an ageing population and the digital revolution, the challenges and opportunities for employers and colleges have never been greater. Let’s work together to the benefit of all and a brighter future for our region.

    Sandy Lindsay MBE is Chair of the IoD and North West Business Leadership Team Skills Group. She is also Founder and Chair of Tangerine and multi award-winning apprentices’ programme, The Juice Academy.

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