Vibrant Economy

West Midlands talent must take centre stage

David Hillan David Hillan

The West Midlands possesses the demographic ingredients to become a world-class professional hub. Birmingham is the youngest city in Europe with under 25s accounting for nearly 40% of the population. It is also the most ethnically and culturally diverse. Yet, it has the second highest regional unemployment rate in the country1.

So, how do we unlock the latent potential of talent in the region? This was the driving question at our dinner event, where I was lucky enough to host attendees from the public, private and third sectors to explore the opportunities that are available to the region’s young people.

Keep on learning

The debate was lively, with the focus on how to best unlock the potential of the West Midlands talent. The key, many argued, is to carefully consider what motivates young people who are entering the workforce for the first time. “Young people are more principle and impact-driven than previous generations, which means businesses should think about what we’re offering in terms of values and what our businesses stand for” explains Charles Rapson, CEO of the School for Social Entrepreneurs (Midlands).

The OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills shows that on average across countries, 9% of jobs are at high risk of being automated, while 25% of jobs will see 50% of their tasks change significantly in the future because of automation. So, it’s important that young people are also prepared for newly-invented roles and career paths that are markedly different to those of previous generations.

Chris Jones, CEO of City & Guilds, in a recent speech emphasised that it is people’s ability to acquire new skills that keeps them employed during periods of disruption – take the industrial revolution for example. What’s clear is that this disruption can give rise to careers where the ability to keep on learning is a highly sought-after skill.

Our research into the accelerators and barriers of growth in the UK’s mid-market reveals that one in three people view talent and skills as ‘key accelerators’ to growth2. As the pace of change increases and with the advent of new and different skills, it is argued that there needs to be a greater focus on the soft skills that set humans apart from their automated colleagues – and prepare young people for multiple careers in one lifetime.

The importance of preparing people for what’s to come – in their own careers as well as in the economy at large – was not lost on the business leaders I spoke to at our recent event in Birmingham.

Collaboration is key

Harnessing the West Midlands talent also demands job creation – I was reassured to hear how HS2 is already doing just that, having set up a head office in Birmingham City Centre. The construction of HS2 will eventually create 25,000 jobs and 2,000 apprenticeships, with the West Midlands being well placed to take advantage of these opportunities.

So, how can we continue the momentum in growth and job creation? Mike Lyons, HS2’s programme director for the Greater West Midlands, thinks it’s important for the region to continue welcoming new business opportunities: “The way Greater Birmingham has really embraced High Speed Rail is a good example of its willingness to support new business opportunities. As well as the jobs directly created by the construction of HS2, the project will support wider economic growth throughout the region due to better transport connections.”

We should consider how to create jobs that suit different skillsets, and why collaboration between different sectors will deliver tangible dividends. If that success can be replicated elsewhere, Birmingham and the wider region is set for a future of growth, collaboration and innovation.

When looking at the future of work and how it will affect certain industries and the regions where we live and work, it’s important that we take into account our strengths. Birmingham is home to the Silicon Canal – where 6,000 tech firms employ more than 38,000 people in roles that are fit for the future. We also have a well-regarded higher education sector – the envy of cities not only in the UK but around the world.

We must build on these strengths, encouraging partnerships between big business and younger companies, while ensuring education curriculums are fit for purpose and prepare young people to succeed amidst workplace disruption. If successful, we can seize on opportunities for mutual growth.


  1. Regional labour market statistics in the UK, December 2017 
  2. Planning for Growth: Uncertainty shouldn't hold you back