Pretty much every part of people’s lives has been affected by the Coronavirus pandemic this year, with the job market as no exception. Indeed, with the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecasting 3.4 million people to be out of work this year, an increase of 260% on the start of the year, it’s clear that unemployment is skyrocketing. Despite latest figures showing we’re no longer in recession, the economy is still 8.2% smaller than its pre-Covid level and with further economic uncertainty looming on the horizon, it is likely the worst may be yet to come.
But whilst the impact of the pandemic has dealt a hammer blow to the jobs market across the whole of the UK, it’s clear that some areas in the UK have been more badly affected than others often owing to an overreliance on particular sectors such as travel and tourism, culture and catering and hospitality. And that was before differing levels of lockdown were introduced causing greater misery for those in stricter lockdowns.
Wanting to dive deeper into these regional variations in both impact of and recovery from Covid19, we spent the summer talking to local Government leaders and employers across six regions in England to understand what they need to help the unemployed back into work in their regions. The message that came back was consistently clear: Westminster’s ‘one size fits all’ formula is outdated and increasingly ineffectual in the face of a fragmented economy, which is only being accelerated by the pandemic.
Following the roadshows, we launched a report ‘Act Now’ which drew out common solutions and ideas from the regions. The report highlighted that radical action is needed, and it is needed now if we are to address unemployment and underemployment across the whole of the UK.
Here are the four key objectives we believe the Government needs to prioritise to support the UK back into work:
- Give power to the people
We can’t apply a ‘one size fits all’ formula if we want to successfully support people back into jobs and get the economy firing on all cylinders. Instead we need to give regional leaders greater decision-making powers when it comes to how and where funding is prioritised to enable them to implement tailored solutions that will have meaningful impact in tackling joblessness, driving up skill levels and increasing social mobility.
As part of this, national policies need to be targeted, specific and built from the bottom up to provide solutions that are flexible, timely and able to adapt quickly in response to sector and regional needs.
- Remove funding bottlenecks across the regions
Funding is cripplingly overcomplicated and overburdensome. It’s all very well announcing various funding streams but if no one can figure out how to access it or has to exhaust resources in trying to navigate it – then what use is it to anyone? Funding access needs simplifying and to be more flexible and helpful to those who need to access it.
To overcome this, the Government needs to devolve more skills funding to the regions to Mayoral Combined Authorities (MCAs) and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and give regions the power to use the funding as they see fit for the biggest impact – namely to deal with local skills and employment challenges.
- Take learning to the people
As we will be seeing newly unemployed people from all strata of society and across all age ranges, we need to ensure that we create learning environments that are accessible and appealing to them. There should be a more robust and flexible offer which should include both increased online opportunities, utilising current HE and FE infrastructure in place but also a programme focused on ‘taking learning to the people’ in disused buildings on high streets for example to allow people to access shorter, sharper learning in their own time to suit their own lifestyles.
Crucially, this must be matched to the market needs of the local economy to deliver the right skills, at the right levels, to the right people.
- Create a one stop shop for employment and training
We propose the creation of a national network of Employment and Training hubs across the UK to fast track reemployment of adults displaced by Covid-19 and build lasting infrastructure for the continuous improvement of UK workforce resilience and productivity. These would provide a ‘Shop Window for Skills’, making employment pathways more visible and accessible to bring together local job seekers, employers and training opportunities.
There has never been a more important time for us to focus on this. With skills shortages, retracting industry sectors, the rise of Artificial Intelligence and growing skills gaps set to further hit these regions, we must act now or risk levelling down the chances of millions.
In order to meet the challenges of today and the future, we need to ditch the current outdated approach and work from the bottom up – and above all, provide the UK’s regions with the autonomy and power they need to navigate the challenges they face today and thrive in the future.
Kirstie Donnelly MBE, CEO of City & Guilds Group