I recently had the great privilege of hosting a meeting at the House of Commons with employers, government representatives, MPs and the third sector.
Our roundtable event was designed to tease out steps that we can all take to support the levelling up agenda and promote sustainable economic growth across the regions and devolved nations.
What became clear to me is that there is so much expertise and enthusiasm to make the Government’s ‘blueprint’ a reality.
We have cause for real optimism and, if we harmonise our efforts, we really can accelerate regional growth.
Equitable growth across the UK
The idea of equitable growth across the UK is not a new one. Indeed, many steps have already been taken to provide the right environment. The Combined Authorities now offer an institutional structure that can help with that harmonisation and the West Midlands Combined Authority, Tees Valley and Greater Manchester Combined Authorities offer a good illustration of where this is happening in practice. But we do need to go further. Rural areas and coastal areas also need this boost.
One of the clear recommendations coming out of the event was a plea to ensure that we do not fall into the trap of assuming that a one size fits all approach to devolution will necessarily provide all the answers. We need to think about what that approach looks like depending on the mix of employers in that area - whether there are large corporate employers - in areas like Birmingham for example - or a higher proportion of SMEs in areas like rural Suffolk. Our infrastructure and planning needs to account for that.
Turning the ‘skills-led’ approach on its head
For PeoplePlus, as a UK wide adult skills provider, we believe there is one principle that is common across all of these regions. That common principle is the importance of turning the ‘skills-led’ approach on its head and starting with ‘employer need’ first to drive a deeper understanding of the skills gaps. This will help to ensure we drive a locally-led agenda rather than deciding our skills and training provision based on national assumptions - an approach which has resulted in us training people at a regional level for jobs that don’t exist.
Take for example the North East of England. It’s an area that has seen a boost in employment levels but new data from the ONS shows that there are still 71,000 people out of work. Productivity remains low in the region and 6.1% of people over the age of 16 are unemployed compared with the national average of 3.8%. The Government has rightly focused its attention on delivering for these communities. A good starting point will be to look at the detail of the opportunities in say, Bishop Auckland, a former mining town, and recognise that the employment opportunities and skills needs which exist are very different to those in more prosperous communities in Surrey for example. National economic levers are important, but not in isolation of work that forecasts opportunities at a local level. In simple terms, it makes sense that greater harmonisation between local decision makers and those setting national policy will help us support employers and local communities.
Stronger collaboration, rather than competition, between training providers
Rethinking our approach to skills through the application of this ‘demand-led’ approach is what we have called for in our recent report ‘Creating the Employment Superhighway’. The report, developed in consultation with employer businesses, training companies and think-tanks calls for stronger collaboration rather than competition between training providers. It sets out how we can use data more effectively to tackle large scale employment needs and to address the fragmented training base nationally, without losing the local detail. This, combined with a way of linking employers to networked training provision, creates a virtuous circle for the effective deployment of skills policy in which every stakeholder – funder, employer, provider and, above all, the learner seeking entry to and progression in work - is a winner.
The new Government has made clear its commitment to ‘level up’ in those communities that have yet to benefit fully from high levels of employment and economic growth. That is a commitment that we can all support, whatever our politics. By rethinking how we approach skills and by placing greater emphasis on employer and local need, we really can achieve the goal of fairer economic growth, shared by all.
Simon Rouse, Group Managing Director, PeoplePlus