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The UK has made impressive progress in regenerating city centres. All those gleaming buildings, though, will count for little if people lack skills to match the higher-quality jobs the country needs. That must be a prime focus in the next phase of urban revival.
The Centre’s recent A Century of Cities report emphasised the importance of knowledge-based activities and a highly skilled workforce in improving a city’s prospects over the long term. Yet while Britain has a strong record in higher education, anxiety about the quality of vocational training has been felt for decades.
After repeated reorganisations, there is recognition across the major political parties that government, employers, colleges, universities and local agencies have to do more to work together and make the shift from the current centrally-driven skills system to one that puts employers in the driving seat.
There are signs that progress is being made. National partnerships in industries such as automotive, aerospace, energy and technology are helping big companies to fulfil not only their own skills needs but also those of their supply chains.
And positive steps are being taken within cities too, with many areas having established training networks or partnerships between businesses and public bodies. The wave of City Deals and devolution agreements is taking this further. Greater Manchester is to gain control of the region’s £500m skills budget, while Sheffield plans a £100m “skills bank” and Birmingham proposes a scheme to match people with job opportunities.
But more remains to be done. There is a persistent mismatch between what employers need and the skills that people have: the UK Commission on Employment and Skills says 16 per cent of employees, or 4.3m, find their skills underused. The OECD says most high-quality jobs in England are in the south, leading to a “skills surplus” in the north.
In addition, employers themselves need to do more. Apprenticeship places may have doubled in recent years and more have been promised, but currently only only 10 per cent of UK employers offer them, while only 30 per cent of businesses provide young people work experience while in education. This is compounded by the fact that just two-thirds of employers do any training and the annual total they spend on it fell by £2.4bn to £43bn between 2011 and 2013, according to UKCES.
And where new schemes are being pursued to improve skills level, we need to see more rigorous evaluation of their impact and more consideration of how successful programmes could be extended to other cities.
Improving residents’ skills levels alone cannot revive city economies. Economic development, transport and housing are also important in creating higher-quality jobs and the right conditions for additional investment. But if more UK cities are to prosper in the years ahead, we need to maintain the momentum towards a more responsive and business led skills system.
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