THE WRITE ANGLE – Educational and productivity remain our biggest challenges

As the autumn begins there is a feeling that for the first time in two years we are finally back in a period of relative normality.

We have causes for optimism, but we must also be realistic about some of the challenges we face, particularly in terms of the education and training landscape. Young people have been hit hard by the pandemic and the impact will be felt for some years to come.

In Liverpool city region we have established an excellent culture of collaboration between the different business organisations. Ourselves and the other chambers, as well as the CBI, FSB, and IoD get together regularly to discuss the issues that affect the 1.6m people and the thousands of businesses in the city region.

This month we met with Katherine Fairclough for the first time. She is the recently appointed chief executive of the Combined Authority. On the agenda was productivity and how the North West is lagging the rest of the country. London, in particular, is streets ahead.

Underlying that productivity gap is a shortage of people with the right skills and relatively low levels of educational attainment. Skill sets in the city region workforce are not where they need to be. And that can be traced directly back to young people unprepared for the next stage when they come out of school.

Data from the CBI showed that when young people are coming out of education, they are not in possession of the right level of qualifications that will get them on to the next stage of their career. Courses and entry level positions that could lead to management roles are often closed off to them.

It is fascinating to drill down into the CBI’s research. It reveals that over the past decade Government policy has been focused on pushing unemployed people into jobs, with little focus on training or skills development. The private sector’s record on skills investment has also been poor.

And yet it also shows that when employers do invest in training it leads to higher levels of productivity. Firms that invest in skills and management training also typically are more likely to spend on training in new technology, it adds.

We have a particular challenge with educational attainment here in Knowsley.  We need to look more closely at why that is.  If the division bell is rung so early for so many it’s not right, and all the more so because it is fixable. Every young person deserves a chance to have a fulfilling life and we have a responsibility to create a framework to facilitate that.

The pandemic has really exposed this issue and laid bare the scale of the challenge. In the past 18 months many people have continued their education in a cocoon, not engaging with businesses or organisations outside of that. That is potentially very damaging.

Apprenticeships offer a path to a rewarding career for people of all ages, and particularly young people. But there again, the pandemic has pushed young people away from vocational training and towards further and higher education.

On the positive side of all this is that no one is sitting on their hands. Both the public and private sectors recognise things need to change. And I’m hearing the word ‘collaboration’ used an awful lot, which is heartening.

Coming back again to the CBI research, it also shows the positive effects ‘clustering’ – that is having a concentration of skills or supportive infrastructure in one location. This reinforces the message about businesses and the public sector working as collaboratively as possible, and not in silos.

We work with schools and colleges in Knowsley, and they are all absolutely committed to changing this landscape for the better. I’ve spoken before, here, about Halewood Academy’s Future Female Leaders programme. The plan is to roll that model out across the borough, and we are all determined to make that happen.

Employers are telling me that they are having trouble filling apprenticeship vacancies. That is a worry as apprenticeships can bring out the talents in young people that perhaps school didn’t. We know from experience that businesses do better when they have a greater range of talent and skills within their teams.

I am optimistic that with the level of co-operation and collaboration we have established across the city region public and private sectors, we can find solutions. It will take time and it is a process, but it is critical we succeed for the future of our people and our economy.