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Overcoming the infrastructure skills challenge in the North of England

Jon Guest | 30 Nov 2016 | Comments

A lot of people are worried about the availability of skills in the United Kingdom, in particular the skills profile in the North of England. There’s a shortage of skilled labour across the economy and investments in infrastructure in the North of England are likely to drive further demand. In addition, Brexit is driving a focus upon UK labour to supply projects, whereas we know that we are already highly dependent upon labour from outside the UK to deliver the current pipeline of infrastructure.

The investment in infrastructure in the North of England is at risk if current skills capacity cannot deliver this.

This challenge is exacerbated by the education and training system currently not meeting the demands of key sectors. Just under 50% of businesses involved in Engineering in the UK have difficulties in recruiting to skilled positions. Furthermore, in the North of England there are several fragmented approaches to strategic skills planning, there is a pull to the south for young, highly qualified people, young people are not being attracted into key industries, and workers in other sectors face significant barriers to retraining and moving into different specialisms or sectors.

In essence there is a multitude of skills challenges which appear to be substantial. The good news is that there are some examples of ways in which the skills challenges can and are being addressed successfully. Some of the best approaches I’ve come across which could address the skills challenge in the North:

Using procurement tools - The new National Colleges for High Speed Rail in Doncaster and Birmingham benefit from being built and established several years before skills challenges for HS2 will be acute. This allows them time to build a pipeline of skilled workers for Europe's largest infrastructure project. The High Speed Rail Colleges also benefit from skills investment that is tied to procurement, allowing the colleges to establish a business model and align learners with job opportunities. It also supports employer engagement in the curriculum and delivery. There is potential for education and training requirements in procurement to be demanded and implemented at large scale in other areas of infrastructure investment in the North of England, such as roads, energy and water.

Using data and local information - One criticism is that students are studying the ‘wrong subjects’ for what our economy needs. One way to address this is to plan the numbers of students outputted in different skills levels using labour market information, infrastructure spend and business planning information. Education and training providers are already drawing upon detailed local employment information and forecasting tools to understand the likely workplace demand for the skills they are producing. This allows education and training providers to place learners on courses which are more likely to have an employment outcome.

Targeting Careers Advice, Information and Guidance – Careers advice, information and guidance is inconsistent across the North of England. There is a recognition that to increase the supply of skills in key industries then the promotion of industry employment opportunities needs to occur. Promotion of future careers in areas with looming skills challenges to children, teachers and parents is being undertaken by employer and industry bodies.

There are further positives with the ongoing promotion of apprenticeships, creation of technical pathways (through UTCs and new Institutes of Technology) and strong performance of universities in the north of England. The North has the potential to build on its education assets, economic strengths and infrastructure investment to benefit the whole of the country. Addressing the skills challenge should be at the heart of this effort.