Birmingham’s future economic success will depend on the skills of its workforce and the analysis in the previous sections highlights the challenges that the city faces on this front. There are three elements to tackling these. The first is increasing the educational attainment of young people. The second is improving the skills of the existing workforce. The third is about improving the job opportunities available in the city to retain degree holders but also to attract them from other parts of the country.
1. Young people
The most recent Social Mobility Commission6 report provides excellent guidance on how to improve the skills level and life prospects of young people. This focuses on three areas:
- Increase the uptake of early education
Evidence suggests that early years intervention can have a lasting impact on a child’s life. Currently all two-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds are entitled to free early education. But uptake of this is patchy. Policy should drive uptake in Birmingham by identifying those children that are not currently benefiting through using data held by local authorities and making direct contact.
Of course, the content of the teaching is also important. For these programmes to be effective, early education and childcare providers in Birmingham should be guided by the Education Endowment Foundation’s Early Years Education toolkit which sets out evidence on which practices are most effective.
- Improve literacy and numeracy across all ages
Previous research has shown that there is a link between employment outcomes and levels of numeracy and literacy, and more specifically between the former and the attainment of 5 A*-C including Maths and English at GCSE7. Although GCSE attainment has improved in the city, there is still a gap with the rest of the country. This suggests that schools and colleges in Birmingham should keep the focus on improving the levels of numeracy and literacy across all ages.
When it comes to concrete measures to address this, the lesson from London’s recent success in improving the performance of its schools is that there is no silver bullet in achieving this goal.8
But things like learning from best practice and improving the quality of teaching can have a positive impact. With regards to the first point, the Education Endowment Foundation has put together some evidence on the practices that work in teaching Maths to Key Stage 2 and 3 pupils. When it comes to the second element, attracting and retaining talented teachers will drive up the quality of teaching.
To achieve this, the West Midlands Combined Authority should work with the regional school Commissioner, universities and Teach First to develop a city-region framework that provides career progression opportunities and professional development to teachers in the area.
- Better access to high-quality career guidance
Career guidance helps young people make the best decisions about their academic and professional lives. This is even more important for those from a disadvantaged background who may not have access to an informal network of people that could provide this type of guidance. All young people in Birmingham should have access to high quality career support. To achieve this, all schools and colleges should work with local businesses to meet the Gatsby benchmarks – key careers advice requirements based on international standards9 – with the aim of helping them transition from schools and colleges to work, particularly those who did not perform well academically.
2. Adult training
Improving skills levels of those already in the workforce will also be required to improve skills in the city. These are three things that Birmingham could be doing to address this challenge.
- Create the West Midlands Skills Fund
In his manifesto, metro mayor Andy Street proposed the creation of a West Midlands Skills Fund to support skills programmes across the city region, and this should be created to address Birmingham’s adult skills challenges.
In order for it to be successful, solutions will be needed for both funding and delivery. There are two potential sources of funding from the public sector. The first is the devolution of the Apprenticeship Levy, which Mayor Street called for in his manifesto. And the second is the Adult Education Budget, which will soon be devolved to the mayor. An option to expand funding would be to use public money to part fund particular programmes, and ask for businesses sending employees on courses to match this funding.
A challenge with delivery is identifying those individuals that would benefit the most from an intervention. Social housing providers offer a potential solution. Not only are social housing tenants more likely to have no or few formal qualifications, but the housing associations have a pre-existing relationship with them. Many already have employment and skills programmes in place — Wolverhampton Homes’ Learning, Employment and Achievement Programme focuses on providing skills training and jobs placements for its residents. Using some of the fund to expand such programmes could be an effective way to improve skills levels in the city.
- Build the evidence and lobby for better data
One of the main challenges with adult and employment trainings is that we still know very little about the effectiveness of different programmes. When designing the new employment pilot schemes recently announced, the West Midlands Combined Authority should allocate resources to collect evidence which would allow a more thorough evaluation of the success of such interventions.
More generally, cities should lobby for better data. For example, having access to HMRC tax data could allow local officers to follow the earnings over time of people who have participated in skills and employment programmes.
3. Improving job opportunities
In the past, cities have focused on increasing the number of students retained and Birmingham is no exception with programmes such as the Graduate Advantage (see Box 5).
Box 5: Graduate Advantage
Established in 2003 and conceived by Aston University, Graduate Advantage is a partnership between 13 higher education institutions across the West Midlands. The project was a reaction to reports of graduates leaving the region to work in London.
Graduate Advantage works with small businesses in the West Midlands to increase the number of graduates in the economy by providing graduate-level internships as well as long-term opportunities. It reports having engaged with over 29,000 graduates and 18,000 businesses and helped the careers of 3,500 graduates in the West Midlands to date. It has also provided £600,000 worth of grants and subsidy to small businesses in addition to free recruitment consultancy services.
But for places with a high retention rate already, like Birmingham, attracting graduates from other parts of the country is crucial to close the skills gap. A significant factor will be the availability of graduate-level jobs. This requires policies that help make the city more attractive to businesses, particularly the high-knowledge ones. Two areas that Birmingham should focus on within this are:
- Building on the success of its city centre
Birmingham city centre has undergone a renaissance in recent years, attracting businesses like HSBC and Deutsche Bank, and is now home to many thousands of high-paid, high-skilled jobs.10 Given the likely growing attractiveness of city centres to knowledge-based businesses in the future, this makes the continued growth of Birmingham city centre important to the city’s future success.
To support this, planning policy will have to continue to allow the creation of new office space as the size of the city centre economy expands. Expected further increases in the demand to live in Birmingham city centre will create competition for space between office and residential, and planning authorities will need to find a balance that allows demand for office space to be met.
Policy will need to mitigate the costs of success that arise from the concentration of jobs in one place. Namely this will require congestion and air pollution problems to be tackled through public transport improvements (see below) and the potential creation of a clean air zone in the city centre.