Skills gap must be closed to prevent a lost generation: Tracy Brabin

I grew up in a council flat in Birstall and like so many of my generation, I was the first member of my family to go to university.

Mayor of West Yorkshire Tracy Brabin talks to members of the media outside Dewsbury Town Hall in Kirklees. Picture: Danny Lawson/PA
Mayor of West Yorkshire Tracy Brabin talks to members of the media outside Dewsbury Town Hall in Kirklees. Picture: Danny Lawson/PA

I studied drama at Loughborough, then went back to education later in life to complete an MA in screenwriting. Not only did it improve my earning potential, it meant I did not have to go on tour as an actor and meant I was able to stay at home with my two young children.

Growing up, many of the opportunities in my life came from local governments providing secure social housing, great libraries and a good, free education.

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But going back to my old estate, I don’t think that the same advantages exist for young people today - and I am very concerned about the impact this will

have on their life chances. Unless we can do something to radically change this we risk an entire generation falling further behind.

Former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell is right to say recently that if levelling up is to mean something, and not merely government platitudes, then it has to lead to a demonstrable improvement in people’s quality of life. And for all the billions being invested in infrastructure, an investment in people, something genuinely transformative, feels like it has been overlooked.

Investing in skills is vital for the future prosperity of our region, which is why I committed to prioritising skills and training in my manifesto. For far too long, large parts of our economy have been based on a low skill, low wages model that feels like it is in a race to the bottom in terms of pay, conditions, and

security.

A quarter of our workforce has no or low qualifications, limiting their earning potential and the contribution they can make to the economy. Low skills all too often go hand in hand with poorer health, and social and environmental challenges that we need to overcome to give everyone the best quality of

life.

Without efforts to provide relevant training and skills, we risk setting back countless people’s careers, stalling progress and diminishing opportunities.

There can be no more real demonstration of what this means than the shameful fact that a baby boy born in our most deprived parts of Leeds can

expect to live 11.3 years less than a boy in the most affluent postcodes, while the gap for a baby girl is 9.7 years. This is simply unacceptable.

We need people to be able to get in and get on in work, and be paid a decent wage for it. But talking to business leaders, they can’t find the skilled workforce they need. This disconnect must end.

An investment in skills and good jobs has to take centre stage, and must start early. Our region’s pupils and students have lost 23 weeks’ education since the start of the pandemic, and this has wiped out a lot of the progress our primary school children have made. As ever, it is the most deprived children who have been most badly affected.

I have talked to mums trying to home-school their children with brothers and sisters sharing a single smartphone to try to complete their schoolwork, and

then having to stay up until the middle of the night to finish their own work. This cannot be right.

With well-being post-Covid an absolute priority, we must also push back against the cuts to creative subjects in school, and to creative and cultural activities in our communities. Numbers of people taking arts subjects at GCSE fell by 37% over the past decade. Alongside the threatened 50% cut in

funding for arts at university, creative subjects are seen as expendable, when they are often the magnet subjects keeping non-academic kids in school.

Creative subjects like music, drama and art are vital to help young people develop all-important soft skills like communication, emotional intelligence,

creative problem-solving and empathy. The opportunity to develop these skills is one of the reasons wealthy parents pay eye-watering sums to send their

children to Eton or Harrow, or closer to home, pay for after-school clubs and activities.

But these skills are going to be increasingly important in the world of work for the future and we need to ensure all young people get the chance to be the

best they can be. This is why one of my key pledges is to lead a West Yorkshire Creative New Deal to support our creative industries to become powerful drivers of economic activity and regeneration, with a new generation of talented young people both in front of and behind the camera.

We also know that as the pandemic has turbo-charged the shift to digital trade for business, the need for digital skills has never been more important. Our digital sector, the fastest growing in England, is a major source of good, well- paying jobs and one of our region’s biggest success stories.

But with 58% of people in West Yorkshire lacking essential digital skills for work, let alone highly specialised and in-demand digital skills like coding and programming, this growth must be matched by our commitment to giving our citizens the skills they need to compete.

As Mayor I am committed to spearheading a Digital Academy, supported by business and academics, building on the great example of the ADA National College for Digital Skills in London and Manchester. We need to ensure our young people have the skills required to be the entrepreneurs, innovators,

engineers and creatives of the future.

Skills have long been top of the agenda for the West Yorkshire Combined Authority. We are implementing many of the findings of the independent

Future-Ready Skills Commission, and seen our recommendations reflected in government policy.

From August we are taking responsibility for the £65m Adult Education Budget, are continuing to put in place Delivery Agreements with colleges so courses reflect the skills our region needs, and are investing an extra £13.5 million to help 10,000 people who have lost their jobs as result of the pandemic build new skills and access training or find work.

And we have recently launched our new five-year Employment and Skills Framework, setting out our long-term vision and strategy for adult skills.

Learning isn’t only about school or college; it must be available to all whatever your age or circumstances. Getting the right qualifications to help you get on in life is a fundamental right.

The West Yorkshire I want to see is a region where more businesses provide good jobs and invest in the future of their workforce, and where young

people and those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, can find jobs, training, apprenticeships or the support to start their own businesses. This is why I was delighted to launch our £6 million scheme to support a new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs.

I am proud to come from West Yorkshire, to be Mayor and represent all our communities. Our region has enormous potential and our people have so much talent that we must recognise and nurture with an investment in skills if we are to achieve all I know we are capable of.

That’s why I am happy to stand with Gus O'Donnell and make the case as loudly as I can that we need the right skills to set us on the best path to recovery and make sure everyone can lead the kind of life they deserve.

Tracy Brabin is the Mayor of West Yorkshire.

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