Three reflections on Birmingham’s skills gaps, and how they can be overcome

Gabriele Piazza rounds up the key themes from our recent round table event on Birmingham’s skills challenges

This week we launched the report Train, attract and retain (supported by ISG), which looks at the skills challenges that Birmingham’s economy faces. It shows that action is needed to tackle skills gaps in all age ranges in the city, from improving the performance of schools to increasing opportunities for working-age adults to gain qualifications.

To mark the report’s publication and explore its findings in more detail, we convened a round table with representatives from local universities, local government and businesses in Birmingham. Three key themes emerged from the discussion:

  1. Initiatives to address skills issues need to be better coordinated

One of the key challenges in tackling the skills issue in Birmingham is the confusion, complexity and duplication of the many initiatives currently in place to support people. And this is made even more complicated when combined with health issues and deprivation. To tackle all these problems requires coordination between skills providers, local authorities and health services so that all the effective programmes are joined up and part of a clear city-wide strategy to reduce unemployment and improve the city’s skills profile. Initiatives such as CSR City, which coordinates business support for underperforming schools (moving on from ad hoc interactions between businesses and schools), are a step in the right direction.

  1. Little is understood about what businesses in the city are looking for

Much work has been done in Birmingham to upskill its population. In recent years initiatives like ‘Aimhigher’ and ‘Make the Grade’ have tried to improve the educational attainment of young people. But there is more to be done to understand what businesses are looking for and how this can inform the content of skills and employability programmes. There are two elements to this. The first is to understand what businesses are looking for in the here and now, and City REDI  (a research institute based at the University of Birmingham) is developing an approach to address this. But with the rise of automation and changes to the labour market — a topic we explored in detail in this year’s Cities Outlook — there is also the question of what skills businesses will need in the future.

  1. Addressing the skills issue will require a long-term view

Improving skills is at the heart of Mayor Andy Street’s agenda. There are short-term wins which he can secure on this issue, some of which are set out in the policy recommendations of the report. For example, the forthcoming devolution of the Adult Education Budget could help the mayor deliver on his pledge of a West Midlands Skills Fund.

But addressing the underperformance of schools, delivering effective skills training and attracting many more knowledge intensive businesses to the city will require coordinated efforts and – most importantly – time. This means that a longer-term vision will be required too, which won’t be possible to fully deliver in one mayoral term. There is therefore a need for the current mayor to set out this vision and begin to shape it, even if he won’t be able to see it through during his current term.

To find out more about the skills challenges that Birmingham faces and how they can be addressed, you can read the full report here.

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