Birmingham and the West Midlands are booming for many.
If you walk around Birmingham city centre, you can’t help but bump into one of two things.
A building site (complete with obligatory crane*) or a debate on skills, writes Kevin Johnson.
There is undoubtedly a confidence in the air. Whether that’s the impending arrival of HSBC, HS2 and HMRC (other new investors not beginning with H are available); winning the Commonwealth Games; an invite to the latest bar or restaurant opening or the “it’s our time” narrative of Mayor Andy Street, Birmingham and the West Midlands are booming for many.
But a concern about future skills brings those enjoying the benefits of growth in line with those who glimpse at the shiny success but have little stake in it.
Who will have the skills to be able to do the jobs of the future?
The debate is hardly new. But there is a new intensity to it.
At the beginning of last week, the Prime Minister announced a review of post 18 education.
It will take a year to complete and there is little chance of any commitment to new public spending as a result. Theresa May has already described England’s higher education system as the most expensive in the world, as if the Conservative Party was just an observer.
Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union, said:
The prime minister can complain about how we have one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world, but it was the Conservatives that introduced it and without a radical look at the whole system little can really change.
Worryingly, this review already looks like little more than finding new ways to cut spending on universities. Linking the price of some degrees to earnings is deeply flawed and fails to acknowledge the many factors which affect graduate income.
Theresa May pointed to importance of technical education. The idea that technical and academic education should have ‘parity of esteem’ has been around for a while, but last year’s Industrial Strategy was something of a disappointment to many pursuing this agenda.
Tomorrow, respected think tank Centre for Cities will publish a report on Birmingham’s skills deficit. Supported by global construction services company ISG, it is anticipated to point to significant skills challenges for the city. Yes, there will be another debate.
Centre for Cities’ recent Cities Outlook 2018 report pointed to uncertainty over the future of work and the possibility of one in five jobs in British cities being lost to automation. Birmingham has the highest proportion of working age population with no formal qualifications (16.3%, 2016).
Ninder Johal, who heads the Nachural Group of Companies and a significant figure in the Black Country business community, recently told guests at his Signature Awards that children are not being prepared for a world that is becoming robotised.
Education is currently based on an outdated 200 year old model and is not being changed to reflect the new world. Schools, he said, are geared towards tick box exercises. At a time when we need a workforce that is ready for a new era of turbulence, Government mandarins are stuck in time.
The record and events company boss was particularly exercised by the impact of reductions in spending and emphasis in schoola on the arts, when creativity is more important than ever.
Mr Johal said:
Business will tell you that the future workforce needs to be creative, innovative and have essential personal skills. Schools fill you with information that is rapidly getting out of date.
We need the future workforce to be all rounded individuals armed with a set of skills, not individuals full of out of date knowledge. We need a workforce that is used to change and can deal with a world that requires a workforce that is flexible.
Only the arts will give you this skill set and imbue individuals to be creative. Look at all the top scientists – they are accomplished musicians.
We separate the STEM subjects from humanities, but we need both.
The world is changing with drones, AI and robots which require a different set of skills.
Just think the type of world a 5 year old will inherit when they are fifteen. Dealing with disruptive technology will be part of their DNA.
The Black Country LEP Board Member concluded by asking:
Will the Department for Education remain invisible?
Will it fix the broken supply chain that links primary, secondary, FE and higher education?
The Lunar Society – comprising some of the region’s leading thinkers – recently staged a debate at Birmingham Metropolitan College asking if there a skills crisis and, if so, what do we do about it?
The discussion was chaired by Sir Michael Lyons, Lunar Society vice-chairman and former chief executive of Birmingham city council. He said:
Key points that were highlighted included the importance of upskilling the existing workforce, the dangers of ‘fetishishing’ higher education and fears of a recent marked decline in apprenticeships.
We also discussed the importance of engaging and supporting SMEs; the need to prepare widely for the demands of the digital present and AI future, and the case for promoting entrepreneurial action by the young.
Those present found there was a pressing need for a stable joined up system embracing employers, schools, further and higher education.
A recent discussion between legal employers and education sector leaders hosted by the West Midlands Growth Company also agreed a more consistent message and frequent dialogue between employers, the education sector, and students was crucial to the success of the region’s legal sector.
Automation is a significant theme in the legal sector, but so too is the lack of raw skills found among new entrants including writing.
BPS Birmingham, the sector lead for business, financial and professional services, is close to concluding its ‘deep dive’ into the sector with City-REDI and Black Country Consortium as part of WMCA’s Productivity and Skills Commission.
Next week, the Association of School and College Leaders holds its annual conference in Birmingham. For the first time, together with the Careers & Enterprise Company, it is inviting business and education leaders to discuss careers strategy and outline research on preparing young people for the world of work, sharing new understanding of the skills sought by employers and fresh insight into how regional economies are working to address skills shortages.
Meanwhile, a Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce campaign – Growth Through People – launched yesterday to help businesses address the region’s alarming productivity gap.
There is no shortage of debate and an increasing amount of available data. There is a consensus that employers and educators need better dialogue and links.
But, the education fundamentals remain concerning and local leaders, including Mayor Andy Street, have almost no powers and resources to tackle the skills gap or join up the educational dots with future skills needs in a growing economy.
As one business leader remarked to Chamberlain Files recently, the time for talking and strategies is over – the West Midlands desperately needs a plan and some action.
Image: Paradise, Birmingham, Two Chamberlain Square