Bridging the skills gap in Yorkshire: The Live Debate

Bridging the skills gap in Yorkshire: The Live Debate

The issue: “How can we ensure that the private sector, government and academia pull together to address the skills gaps across Yorkshire, and how do we address our priority sectors to ensure that the Yorkshire region continues to compete on the world stage?”

Taking partBQ editor Mike Hughes opened the discussion by saying that there was a shared responsibility to bridge the skills gap.

“The people around this table are highly skilled themselves in finding routes across the gap with skills that include the traditional skills, cutting-edge skills and those we have never even heard of yet. This is now about a joint responsibility – collaborations that can increase the volume of the debate.”

Leading the introductions about successes and ambitions to get an overall view of the issue, Karen Elenor, director of enterprise services at Sky Bet Gaming said: “We recruit at a very high volume and very quickly, so it is key to us to utilise the attributes people bring and teach them the skills. We are working with Sheffield Hallam to bring one of the first Level 7 programmes utilising the Apprenticeship Levy and offering our grads the opportunity to gain a Masters at the end of their three-year programme.”

Rob Powell, regional partnership director for Yorkshire at BT Group, added: “TLA - the Tech Literacy Agenda – is one of our lead programmes because young people are consumers of tech, but often only screen-deep, so we use programmes like Barefoot to bring them into the workplace better prepared with the right digital skills.”

Craig Burton, executive chairman of The Works Recruitment.com has placed more than 15,000 people into work across the North of England, he said: “As a recruiter, we are engaged to put square pegs into square holes, so we are looking at young people to see how they work and learn and we are hearing from them that they can’t imagine working for the same employer for more than 12 months, which is really scary. So we need to look at what we are doing now at a very young age because we do not have the luxury we have had for three generations of just picking the low-hanging fruit.

Drew Rowlands, director of development at creative agency IVE, used to be a secondary school headmaster and said the state of the sector at the moment was dire in terms of skills development. “We have now developed a whole consultancy and training wing of our organisation around developing creative capacities and problem-solving. One of the big challenges is that we are using the wrong language in trying to tackle the skills issue and if we change it we can make a difference.”

Norman Peterson, CEO of Growth Capital Ventures, invests in early-stage businesses, who face a recruitment challenge. He told the guests: “It is very difficult for these small companies to attract talent in from the large firms, so we are big advocates of putting in training plans and using technology such as Hive HR to do pulse surveys and increase output and engagement.

One of my passions is getting young children ready to be entrepreneurs. Some schools want all their pupils to go to university, but my view is that some should never be allowed near a university, but should consider starting their own business in their twenties.”

Moving on to the university sector, Conor Moss, director of education at Sheffield Hallam, said the natural progression of school-college-university was being disrupted and the sector needed to explore how people got to their degrees in different ways. He said: “Hallam is positioned to work alongside small, medium and large employers to deliver degree apprenticeships and that is disrupting the market. We work with students from a deprived region to give them a sense that they can attain, and have aspirations and that we can find them employment, so whatever we do in the skills sector we need to think about social mobility and diversity when we recruit and develop.”

And Jo Burgess, business development manager at York St John, said: “We have two clients – the students and the economic regions that we serve and while we hear a lot about the brain drain, 82% of our students come from Yorkshire, Humber North East and North West and they go back to those same places. We are progressively exploring the different options we have, all in line with what our regional economic partners need us to develop and one challenge we face is how businesses manage the 20% ‘off the job’ training requirement for degree apprenticeships, not to the detriment of their workforce and without changing entire policies and procedures.”

Taking the viewpoint of the colleges, Asa Gordon, assistant principal of Employer Responsiveness at Bradford, added: “We are developing people with the right skills for employment and drive the apprenticeship and traineeship programmes and show there are pathways into high-level apprenticeships rather than creating a system where, at 19, they are not able to progress. The challenge we are tackling is that we have 2,500 apprenticeships for 4,000 leavers.”

As CEO of recruitment and employability group Gradcore, Martin Edmondson described his company as “a Robin Hood business” which began through Yorkshire Forward. He said: “As a region there is some good stuff happening here, including RISE, which we work on with Sheffield Hallam, as a graduate scheme bringing better innovation and productivity for SMEs.

The region has been obsessed for a long time with retention of talent, but in Yorkshire we keep more talent than we lose so the issue is in doing something with it and having the ambition to release its potential.”

LDAndy Atkinson, business development manager at Bradford College is the link between the businesses and employers and the college and was working in “really interesting times”. He said: “It is interesting to see how the strategies of large employers vary so much – some would love to bring in new blood, but can’t afford the extra headcount after being hit with the cost of the levy. So they are going down the path of upskilling, but are then facing the 20% requirement Jo mentioned. I think one of the challenges for us all is to understand whether employer expectations are too high for a Level 2 or 3 apprentice who will need some mentoring, or are they not prepared enough by their schools?”

IVE, formerly known as Cape UK, is now led by CEO Rosi Lister, who was brought in 14 months ago to diversify the model and look towards specific needs now and in the future. She told her fellow dinner guests: “My challenge is to find out where the mismatch is between DfE policy stripping arts and culture out of the curriculum and the industrial strategy that has entrepreneurship and innovation on practically every page. Why are those conversations not happening and where is creativity on the agenda in terms of driving a growth strategy forward?”

Rob Hickey, executive director for innovation and growth at York St John University – the fastest-growing university in England – manages the non-academic side of the city centre campus. He admitted to being relatively new to education, having come from the railway industry, but said: “A lot of our growth has come from applied creativity in industries such as film production and computer science, which is where we seem to have struck a chord by linking it all to local business needs.

What we need to do in this sector is create an offer which is truly business-focused and explore what would happen if we had a totally blank sheet of paper with no boundaries. What would a degree or a equivalent qualification look like then?”

Phil Orr, general manager of BT Managed Services, was next to set out how his work was adding to the debate. He said: “The big challenge I have is helping people understand that these clever and complex technologies are in hubs and not locally distributed. I bring these highly-skilled people to our hubs in Cottingham and Wakefield and get them motivated, but I don’t want to lose them in three years, so I want to work with universities to look at refreshing adult skills. There is a great opportunity in Yorkshire to really start to import and create some centralised hubs.”

As Councillor for the Huntington and New Earswick ward in York and serving on the Education and Skills panel on the LEP, Carol Runciman has the wide experience to give an overview of the situation in Yorkshire. She explained: “The LEP looks at what we have got, then identifies the gaps and what we need, so there is a lot of market analysis and a tremendous amount of information is sent back and analysed.

We need to look at manufacturing areas as a priority, and construction – not just brickies and plasterers, but right up to Level 4 and 5 courses to change the perceptions of people who see it as just a dirty-handed job. We also need media, computing and IT, but what is very interesting to me is the growth of robotics which is coming up fast for sectors like healthcare.

We in Yorkshire need to realise we can’t educate everybody to degree level, we’ve got to have Level 1, 2 and 3 in the workforce and put in skills at all levels and move away from children expecting to be what they see – what their fathers and mothers and aunties and uncles do – and raise their awareness much higher.”

Debate chair Caroline Theobald stressed the importance of the dislocation between and industrial strategy and some of the remarkable efforts being made to tackle the skills issue, to which Craig Burton – who is also an enterprise adviser to the LEP – responded:

“Young people who are exposed to four businesses or more when they are at school are ten times less likely to become NEETS, but it can be difficult for an SME to connect to education establishments, even though we know that just that little bit of exposure can bring about a big shift and change someone’s outlook.”

Theobald challenged Rosi Lister to say what she would do about the situation, as it perhaps needed the ‘thinking outside the box’ approach her organisation was known for. Lister said: “There is a completely artificial divorce in terms of the creative economy, even though a united voice for creativity might be an injection into the industrial strategy. No one knows what we will be dealing with in the future, so we have to adapt in a way that enables us to encounter the unknown.”

LDMartin Edmondson said: “Firstly, there will be a national careers strategy, but that has been shelved and shelved and shelved, so it would be nice if someone actually did that. Secondly, what we need to be looking at is developing a set of underlying attributes so that every student – as we do with Hallam – has emotional intelligence, resilience and creativity to future-proof them against a situation where a lot of jobs will change radically.”

Conor Moss proposed: “The solution to the skills gap isn’t policy and government, it is business and academia doing things regardless of what the policy is. The more enlightened companies are saying ‘we will take control’ and use policy to our advantage.”

Rosi Lister agreed, adding: “It is private businesses that really understand the needs.”

Sky Bet was held up as shining example of taking attributes and turning them into skills and Karen Elenor told the guests: “The right organisations work to develop people so they can keep the good people. I am a trained accountant who now works in technology, so I have transferable attributes that have been developed in me over time. People don’t need to come to you with the skills, they need to come to you with the attributes and then you grow people.”

Drew Rowlands suggested that we had yet to see the full impact of Government policy and added: “When they are truly bedded in, I think it is going to be a real eye-opener. The creative ability is being narrowed and narrowed and as the children come through it is going to be a real challenge to open it back up again because they are being taught purely to the test and it is getting worse.”

Craig Burton criticised the way careers were highlighted, saying: “Leeds has always been a city of 1,000 trades, but if I was at a university careers day you would think there were five employers here. How do we coach and tease out SMEs and help them make the right connections?” and Norman Peterson of Growth Capital Ventures added: “We recruit for attitude and want people who will have a go at things and have an open mind. They embrace an opportunity and many of them have been to university but have learned their skills at home, coding in their bedrooms at weekends. We are looking for people like that who can be in employment with us and be entrepreneurs at the same time.”

Jo Burgess said this was the benefit of having ‘intrepreneurs’ – entrepreneurs working in a business – and she agreed with Rosi Lister about the importance of fusing together technical skills and creativity, adding that York St John’s pairing of the creative sector and the STEM sector enabled them to look at things in a different way and turn STEM into STEAM, against a backdrop of decline in the creative curriculum in secondary schools.

As an example, she said: “We are working with a window manufacturer who knows that in order to stay ahead of the game and diversify their product, they need to bring in people who can think differently and are prepared to take risks. But they are not Sky, and don’t have people queuing up to come and work for them, so they need to differentiate their proposition. They have told us that they have missed the creativity and innovation element of their business – and that’s where we need to move to.”

“If you can read music, you can write code because that is how your brain is wired,” Karen Elenor told the guests, “so it is a really sad thing that it is diminishing and I find it astonishing as a parent and private sector employer that they can take a clear-cut road into the digital sector by taking out the IT GCSE level. When you try to draw out what young people don’t know are their skills, they bring that difference and creativity to an organisation.”

LDCaroline Theobald challenged BT to say what they are doing that is different, to give opportunities to people within their workplace. Phil Orr said they had developed a rotation programme for graduates so they can learn different facets of the job, explaining: “I look after managed services, so I have to factor in how to attract business, how to price it up and how to make sure it lands well in the market and becomes profitable.

“What worries me is that if we suddenly have a knee-jerk reaction, taking those skills out of school too early, we will end up with a mismatch between what employers want in terms of skills and capabilities without the basics, and we will be back to the early 1980s when people had to be taught to read and write when they started their apprenticeships.”

His colleague Rob Powell added: “We recruit diversely, including the armed forces, so that we get different skill sets from as wide a pool of talent as possible.”

From Bradford College, Asa Gordon said there was a need for fundamental change to make a large enough difference: “We are seeing the majority of the businesses we are working with – SMEs and micro-enterprises – have expectations of clocking up GCSEs during a recruitment rather than asking what the skill of that person is. The whole process is wrong.”

Rob Hickey said: “The national industrial strategy is skewed away from this region and does not fully reflect it and its needs, and I see more issues on the horizon. If Government intervenes that could be to the detriment of us securing the skills and attributes this region particularly needs. We have two great LEPs in Yorkshire who have done a lot in a short space of time, but they will find it increasingly difficult to provide the skills if their hands are tied by a STEM-dominated national agenda.”

Bringing in the local authority and LEP viewpoint, Carol Runciman agreed that creativity was a common thread. “If you want to be a good mathematician, you need to be creative, if you want to be a good technologist, you need to be creative – you cannot think in tramlines. Maybe it is the mandarins of Whitehall who see STEM and creativity separated, but somehow we need to get the message across that it is not like that. When I was in further education we were talking about key skills, and it was all about teamwork and communications, and businesses are still saying that is what they want – and somebody somewhere isn’t listening.”

Drew Rowlands said the language being used was not helping people on all sides understand what was needed. “The current Government is obsessed with the word ‘academic’,” he said. “Technical or vocational is a second class citizen. But if you look at a definition of academic, it means theoretical, which suggests science has no application, maths has no application because they are nothing to do with being practical, and that music has no canon of knowledge that needs to be learned. Part of the solution to what we are discussing is to change the language and rather than academic and technical or vocational, we start to use the idea of applied and theoretical and break down barriers and blur boundaries.”

Rowlands went on to describe how the careers guidance on offer was dire, and that instead there should be a drilling down to find the attributes needed and feed them in using mentorship and support. Conor Moss said the situation was a national disgrace to under-fund information and guidance which led to pupils being put on courses they should not be on.

Karen Elenor said her latest cohorts love the blend of the academic and theoretical and what the business brings to them. “And I like the fact that we do a level of the teaching because that is development of our own people and giving them opportunities as part of a different culture.”

Martin Edmondson agreed about not being too restricted: “We get hung up on our systems, structures and levels, but actually it is all about early talent if you blur those lines. For the last 40 years there has been an organisation called the Association of Graduate Recruiters, and I joined their board last week on the day that they became the Institute of Student Employers. That change isn’t because all their members have changed but because there is a much more blurred sense of what a learner, educator, employer partnership looks like, so you get models that are a fantastic hybrid.”

Jo Burgess also backed the principle of a major rethink of how skills are managed: “With SMEs what we are finding is that the Levy is being managed by their FD, with no HR infrastructure in there and we are being told ‘don’t ask me about workforce planning or talent strategy – I have no idea. Help us.’

Andy Atkinson from Bradford College praised the work of Sky Bet and said he was an advocate of getting that vital balance right between experience and attitudes. He told the guests in The Boardroom: “I was with a large employer this morning with no experience in apprenticeships who faced the challenge of who carried out the work – was it HR? Finance? Training and Development? It just gets passed around, diluting the knowledge of what is involved. But we have met with them and they have decided that, with 22 departments, they will start with one and bring in a young person, make that first person a success and then roll it out.”

But he made the point that it can be hard to share best practice because organisations were at such different stages in different markets, and Rob Powell agreed, saying: “For every Sky Bet and every Clifford Chance that are pro-active businesses that want to get involved, there are dozens or even hundreds who don’t have time and don’t have a clue, so there is a lot of free value being lost. I wonder whether there is a case for some regional infrastructure to be co-ordinated about getting out to those businesses and providing a more coherent offer.”

Rosi Lister said IVE was also working a lot with SMEs and helping non-levypayers engage with apprentices and pick up a broad creative agenda, to the extent that there may be a branch of the organisation that specifically looks after apprenticeship training to provide that missing infrastructure and “surrogate parenting” for apprentices with smaller employers who don’t have the capacity.

Phil Orr said there were still synergies with much larger organisations: “Only half of BT is a monolith,” he said. “There are 30,000 to 40,000 employees in OpenReach and I run an SME, making the decision on whether I bring in two graduates this year. So we need to identify techniques to break down the barriers into larger companies.”

Mike Hughes said how illuminating it would be for the people around the table to meet again to see if it was possible to have made specific progress together in the meantime. He said: “It is a real privilege to have heard all the input, but it is the very start of a very big conversation.” Caroline Theobald took that point and asked if there were practical issues that could now be tackled.

“If there are examples of good practice, why are they kept somewhere that means someone who could benefit can’t access it, and if we are going to change the language, where will we do that? ”she asked.

Rosi Lister offered to facilitate a reunion of people, opinions and achievements and the table agreed that should happen, with

Conor Moss saying: “We have been down these pathways before, trying to get universities to play with businesses. We are all locked in a higher education business model where we get fed with a steady stream of students, but what has changed even in the last 18 months is that there has been a tightening of competition between universities and the expectation of a young person is ‘I have a choice’.

“Two years ago, schools wouldn’t talk to us. Last year a couple came to us to talk about degree apprenticeships, and this year we could go out every day talking to them. We are nowhere near that cliff edge, but we are certainly in a different space.”

Karen Elenor agreed and said this was the time to make real change. “It is a space where all parties have the potential to benefit massively and here the candidates coming in to the job markets should get the best of both worlds if we can work together to get that right mix.”

Rosi Lister said quality had to be a keyword to help change the status of apprenticeships and reflect the Quality Assurance Agency model used in higher education.

Jo Burgess and Asa Gordon both highlighted the need for action in the Health and Social Care sector, which have great difficulty coping with the need for 20% ‘off the job’ training. They warned that in 12 months time this could be a major issue because one of the biggest sectors can’t do apprenticeships any more.

There was a general consensus that doing something about the 20% would be a major step forward in opening up the market.

As the debate drew to a close, Phil Orr said the refreshing of skills for adults should be on the agenda for the next meeting, and Carol Runciman said she would be taking the details of the discussion to the Education and Skills panel on the LEP and talk it through with them.

Mike Hughes closed the debate, saying it had been an inspiring evening. “We always need to have mature arguments to get things done and then find a way to communicate to people that something is actually happening,” he said. “And the idea that we will meet again and that more might happen, and then more again, is absolutely what we should all aim for.”