Video: Firms must tackle skills crisis, Asda boss tells Yorkshire forum

TOO many young people are playing video games instead of gaining a foothold in the world of work, a major business forum was told today.

Asda's CEO Andy Clarke at the Yorkshire Forum
Asda's CEO Andy Clarke at the Yorkshire Forum

The Yorkshire Forum, which included contributions from the chief executives of three major companies, heard concerns that businesses are still facing challenges as they attempt to forge links with local schools.

The event, which was organised by The Yorkshire Post, provided leading business figures with the chance to discuss the issues facing the region’s economy.

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One of the panel members, Andy Clarke, the chief executive and president of Leeds-based supermarket chain Asda, said large companies had a big role to play in finding work for young people.

Asda's CEO Andy Clarke at the Yorkshire Forum

He said: “The issue that we are facing in the country, about getting young people into work, still runs on.

“It’s better than it was four years ago but it’s abhorrent; the fact that our nation’s future is still sitting on a sofa playing video games, rather than being employed. So we’ve got a huge responsibility as employers. Finding and retaining the right people is crucial. As employers we can make a real difference.”

Mr Clarke said he had recently spent a morning with a group of 14 and 15-year-olds in Leeds.

He said: “There’s no little they really understand about the world of work just coming towards them in a very short space of time... It’s hard for education to get close to business. If you think about, it we’re going to be the recipient of that unskilled workforce, so I think it’s down to us; we have to be able to take the lead, and get closer to schools, and have it as part of our business plans.”

Many of Mr Clarke’s concerns were echoed by the other speakers, Ashley Highfield, the chief executive of Johnston Press, which owns The Yorkshire Post and The Scotsman, and Andy Baker, the chief executive of Plusnet, the internet service provider.

Mr Baker told the 70-strong audience at the White Cloth Gallery in Leeds: “From a technology industry perspective, you can’t just sit there and wait for the right candidate to come to you. You’ve got to get involved and find ways to integrate yourself in the supply chain, and that really is around building relationships with universities, right the way to schools.”

Mr Highfield said that having a healthy economy was important to developing skills.

He added: “Take a company like ours, during very tough times a few years ago we simply didn’t have the free cash to invest in skills and training. What we have to do is innovate around how we develop skills and work with new types of apprentices.”

Mr Highfield said that Johnston Press had brought in college students to work in extended newsrooms,

He added: “They’re literally partitioned off and they have lectures there.”

The wide-ranging debate included discussions about devolution and the uncertainty caused by the forthcoming General Election.

Mr Highfield said: “I think this election... is the most fascinating in a generation because it will be fought so locally.”

Mr Baker said: “We pride ourselves in creating careers for the region. So in a typical quarter, there’s numerous promotions up through the call centre into more senior operational roles, where we take around 30 of our call centre colleagues and then put them into other functions around the business, (such as) HR, finance, legal, and software engineering.”

He added: “So we put people with real insight and knowledge of the customer into roles where they’ve made a dramatic difference.

“We combine that with a broad spread of other recruitment activity, so apprenticeships and traineeships are really important to us.”

Mr Clarke said that, although London was an “economic powerhouse of the world” there was a great opportunity for Leeds and the Leeds City Region.

He added: “We’ve got a great opportunity for the city of Leeds, but also for the wider city region to really make a step forward in terms of our economic engine.”

The forum was opened by Jeremy Clifford, the Editor of The Yorkshire Post.

Mr Clifford told the audience: “The Yorkshire Post is a powerhouse of business debate.”

Mr Highfield said “the London-centric” media irritated him because it often took a patronising attitude to places like Yorkshire.

He told the Yorkshire Forum: “The regional press has got a growing opportunity to work with the BBC but also a growing threat for them to park their tanks on our lawns.”

Mr Clarke encouraged business leaders to get into the classroom and pass on their experience.

He added: “Believe me, it’s very humbling but also hugely worthwhile, something that I know we can collectively make a huge difference.

“Wouldn’t it be fantastic for Yorkshire to be leading the way in terms of how we drive work experience, and the collective benefit for getting young people into employment..I’m not hugely biased, they have to go into retail.

“We can start them with work experience but then they can go and work anywhere. But just giving them that first job means a huge difference.”

The Yorkshire Forum panel debate was chaired by Greg Wright, The Yorkshire Post’s deputy business editor.