Our Digital Skills crises will be solved by employers acting locally in their own self-interest

We regularly see headlines about skills shortages and hear employers complaining they cannot get the skills they need. Meanwhile they recruit supposedly skilled staff in India  rather than unemployed UK graduates who are the wrong sex or colour  or from the “wrong” university . Few even consider retraining those whose legacy skills are no longer in demand or who are seeking to return to work after a career break.

The problems are not new. 

Studies every few years use much the same analyses to produce much the same recommendations. Few are ever implemented. Bottom up skills initiatives that succeed in meeting the needs of local employers, like the TOPS programme or City and Guilds 726, are killed off because they place students into jobs instead of onto other courses. Meanwhile schemes based on “national figures” often fail to fit local needs because so many “travel to work” communities do not fit “the national average”.  Publicity for success, to enable it to grow organically, is commonly limited by the way public funding programmes work in practice. The problems are compounded by the rarity of business models that facilitate funding across the public-private divide from the recruitment/training budgets of employers or the agencies they use, let alone across the budgets of different funding agencies.  

Hence my previous Groundhog day blogs leading up to the question of who really wants to break out of the comfort zone of Groundhog day and turn the UK into a global skills hub. 

But there is good news. The Government has set ambitious targets although arguments about how to avoid a return to the failed training levy and grant mechanisms of the1970s are likely to prove a distraction from meeting these. We have a large and growing number of national and local skills programmes: from work experience, internships and careers guidance through and apprenticeships and vocational degrees to continuous career development and returner programmes. Some are excellent. But few MPs, employers or those providing or seeking careers advice, understand how they fit together, let alone which are likely to succeed, where or why.

Experience indicates, that success correlates with a focus on local needs – because these vary so widely: from areas where employers are competing hard for talent,(including trainees, (such as the Thames Valley) to clusters of high tech SMEs, needing fast-changing, innovative skills, adjacent to areas of high youth unemployment (such as Shoreditch and East London).  SMEs in some industries now require all employees to have digital skills. Others need only one or two support staff. Rural areas often have high tech clusters, (like Suffolk with Martlesham). Then there are the new towns, (like Telford). 

The information needed to plan and/or improve activity to meet local needs resides with a mix of local authorities and the employers active with the national and local sector skills councils. Hence the need for a bottom up look at strategies for achieving the government targets and creating a workforce fit for the evolving and changing needs of the 21st Century 

I am therefore working on the pilot for a programme to help MPs make sense of what is happening in their own constituencies so that they can work with their local authorities, local employers and local schools, colleges and universities to achieve results. Given the pressures on their time and the effort necessary, that means identifying employers who employ staff across the UK and professional bodies and trade associations who are willing to encourage their local staff/members to help their constituency MP, and his or her staff, to stimulate local action. That action may be very different according to local needs and whether there are already vibrant local partnerships.              

The immediate objective is to identify no more than three or four pilot constituencies to test the concept. The current shortlist, based on volunteers to date, includes Kingston and Surbiton, Telford, Eastleigh, Northamptonshire and Devon. Please let me know if you would like to help. I am particularly interested in hearing from employers who want to use the opportunity to improve their choice of local recruits – of all ages and backgrounds.

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