Mike Hawking: Now let’s get to work on jobs and skills

Skills is one of the biggest challenges facing Yorkshire cities like Leeds.
Skills is one of the biggest challenges facing Yorkshire cities like Leeds.
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A-LEVEL results day is a time for celebration. Across our region, thousands of teenagers are now looking forward to their future plans, whether that is going on to university, entering the world of work or starting an apprenticeship. The exam season also brings into focus the skills and opportunities for young people across Yorkshire.

For the smiling young people in the newspapers, and on television, the future looks bright. We know that they have a much better chance of earning a decent wage, particularly if they go on to university.

It’s their less qualified peers we believe need more focus to help improve their skills and be offered support to find work. Otherwise, they risk being left behind.

Unemployment figures released earlier this week showed another drop in the number of people out of work. But new research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that many people living in our most deprived neighbourhoods are unable to take advantage of the “jobs miracle”.

In the largest cities in our region, many of the most deprived neighbourhoods are in Primary Employment Zones – central locations where there are more jobs than residents.

In Sheffield, 24 per cent of deprived neighbourhoods are in this category. This rises to 30 per cent in Leeds and 33 per cent in Bradford.

Our findings suggest that this is often due to a skills mismatch between the jobs on offer and the abilities of individuals in these neighbourhoods. This is something that urgently needs to be addressed. The place to start is in our schools.

Better links with employers would help schools know what skills are needed in the local economy, and contact with pupils can make them aware of opportunities in the area.

Research has found positive links between employer contact with schools and adult earnings.

But just 39 per cent of young people have had ‘meaningful engagement’ with an employer by the age of 16, and less than half of British young people will have had access to a high-quality work experience placement by the same age.

The Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership recognises this. Its skills network brings together hundreds of education and training partners from across the region to look at these issues.

The City Region’s Enterprise Adviser programme is making links between businesses and schools at a strategic level.

Others are taking the initiative too. The new University Technical College in Leeds opens next month, with the backing of industry. Support from the West Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce and Leeds City Council has helped with pupil recruitment.

The College, teaching 14 to 19-year-olds, will place emphasis in developing skills that are in high demand amongst employers.

Social enterprises are doing their bit too. The Ahead Partnership’s Making the Grade programme is a really successful tie-up between employers and schools, helping to offer students an insight into industry and boost employability.

Initiatives such as these are a positive step forward, but coverage is patchy. Better co-ordination is needed to ensure every school in our region is able to make these connections.

There are three things the Government could do to help.

The first is to give Regional School Commissioners the responsibility of generating strong links between schools and employers in our region.

Commissioners should be responsible for schools in one region, at present they are spread across too wide a geographical area. West Yorkshire’s Regional Schools Commissioner also covers Lancashire.

The second is to invest in good-quality careers advice, along with a programme ensuring access to trained advisers and taking account of diversity. We estimate this would cost around £200m in the first year in England, and less thereafter.

The third is for the adult skills budget to be devolved in full from Whitehall to our region to help connect deprived neighbourhoods with opportunities on their doorstep.

Local authorities, businesses, training providers could work more closely together to create a system that can benefit everyone.

Strong local leadership is also needed to target employment and skills programmes more effectively at individuals in deprived neighbourhoods.

Opportunities created by major development projects being built across Yorkshire are crucial to open up jobs and training for people in areas that have been left behind. We all have a stake in this.

Boosting skills will increase productivity in our region, resulting in higher wages and a stronger economy. But the Government must take action to give our region the powers we need to get on with the job.

Mike Hawking is cities partnership manager at the independent, York-based Joseph Rowntree Foundation.