A Regional Skills System for Growth
Like most of England, business growth and productivity in the Eastern Powerhouse is being held back by skills challenges.
To some observers, this may be surprising, as the East of England performs pretty well as a region in terms of educational achievement and has a relatively well-educated population, with 40% of residents of working age educated to Level 4 (first year degree level) or above, just under the England average of 43.5%. But this overall picture conceals considerable variation in results across the region, with areas like Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire performing well above average at GCSE and A level, while areas like Suffolk and Norfolk are below average. As far as school and college education is concerned, there’s a clear challenge in getting all parts of the East performing as well as the best, made more difficult by the diverse geography and weak transport infrastructure across the region.
But as the recent “State of the Region” report highlights, there is also a big challenge in reskilling and upskilling the region’s existing workforce. Two facts stand out. The East has one of the highest levels of hard to fill job vacancies as a result of skills shortages and skill gaps, with key sectors such as Health & Social Care, Construction, and Accommodation & Food Services suffering in particular. Meanwhile, the average number of training days per employee is one of the lowest in the country and disappointingly the figures show a steady downwards trend. There is a pressing need to raise the game in making sure employees in the East are keeping up to date with training needs in a rapidly changing world where high-level technical skills – notably digital skills – are now so vital for economic success.
So what can be done to tackle this challenge? The Eastern Powerhouse believes that the key is much greater coordination between employers and training providers to tackle the mismatch between skills supply and demand, and to better align courses, apprenticeships and other forms of training with the specific needs of sectors and geographies.
We need better information on labour market trends and better identification of the emerging skills needs of growth industries. This will require the establishment of a labour market observatory to collate and disseminate data on current and future needs. We need much better mechanisms for giving employers, providers and individual job seekers access to relevant information to inform investment in training and education, and much stronger Careers information and guidance for all those of working age in the region. And we need better forums where employers and providers, including further education colleges, universities and independent training providers can develop joint strategies for matching skills demand and supply.
While this needs to be done at sub-regional level, there is also a clear need for an overarching regional dimension to better harness and deploy resources from Cambridge to Great Yarmouth, and from Norwich to Ipswich. We have described this as a “polycentric” strategy, where the work within geographical clusters is developed within a wider regional framework.
The good news is that the Eastern Powerhouse has begun to forge the partnerships and strategies needed to bring about a step change in the delivery of education and skills throughout the region. We have excellent colleges and universities. We have ambitious and forward-thinking companies of all sizes. We need to bring all these ingredients together to build a regional skills system that can underpin growth and raise productivity.