It can often seem like a tale of two regions when it comes to living and working in the West of England. On the one hand we have low unemployment, a highly skilled workforce – almost 48% of people are educated to degree level1 – and a high proportion of businesses engaged in advanced industries.
But on the other, there are rising concerns about the region’s skills gap. What are we preparing our young people for and what they will actually be doing? This is coupled with the age-old challenge of retaining our best talent in the region.
Skills present the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity for the West of England. It’s a recurring theme in the conversations I have with leaders from across the private, public and third sectors. It’s also the topic we always come back to when questioning how to secure sustainable growth in the region.
And that’s why it formed the basis of a recent dinner I hosted in Bristol. It was an evening that saw the region’s leaders from the public, private and third sectors gather to discuss what next. From the importance of apprenticeships to the creation of an innovative skills service and how the region can build more diverse workplaces, guests explored the tangible ways in which they might boost and nurture skills in the region.
Skills for the future
We are in a position of comparative strength. The West of England is an economic powerhouse, worth £31 billion2 and Bristol is the only core-city region outside of London that is a net contributor to the UK economy3.
However, to retain our status as an attractive place for investment and talent alike, the region must keep up the momentum. To do that we must, teach and train people in the West of England with one eye on the future.
Most guests agreed that while automation and robotics will affect the world of work – that might not necessarily be a bad thing. What is important is that skills acquisition and training is appropriate for what will be expected from the future workforce.
You frequently hear that education is falling short in preparing young people for a workplace that’ll be radically different. However what interested me and gave me cause for optimism was evidence of organisations that are tackling this issue head on and building bridges between the worlds of employment and education, including us through initiatives such as the Schools Enterprise Project.
Backing the Bridge builders
One attendee, Adam Powell of Skills West of England Enterprise Partnership highlighted a City of Bristol College initiative that is contributing to efforts to update education. “The College has begun to re-think work experience: rather than someone being thrown into a business for a week with little to do,” he says. “They are now planning on having a student come in once a week over a longer period, giving them the chance to get stuck in and learn more about the commercial world.”
The goal is to create a system where people can train and learn seamlessly between different businesses and education institutions. Young Enterprise and Young Bristol are two other organisations already deeply involved in building these connections.
My view is that if they want a sustainable source of talent and relevant skills, businesses in the West of England must back these bridge builders and contribute expertise, resources and opportunities in the process.
And as Bristol City Councillor Claire Hiscott stated, the answer lies in building dialogue between schools and business – there is no shortage of interest from the education sector.
“I was at a school this morning explaining our programme for offering work experience in various places, and the head teacher nearly bit off my hand with the offer. But business needs to offer something sustainable – something that can be replicated for years to come.”
For me, Claire’s enthusiasm to have organisations look outside their four walls and build new connections reflected the mood of the evening. Together, guests agreed that resolving the skills gap and creating a quality talent pool for the region depends on innovation and collaboration between organisations of all sizes and sectors. I’m looking forward to playing my part in making this happen.