If the promise of the Northern Powerhouse is to be delivered, it will be built on the pillars of transport and skills.
We need a workforce with the right skills and access to a transport system that brings opportunities to people across the North of England within a realistic travelling time. These are often viewed as separate challenges but, as an organisation at the heart of efforts to turn the Northern Powerhouse into a reality, the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) knows that they are intrinsically linked.
It is becoming increasingly clear that, in the absence of urgent action, gaps in the labour market for transport-related skills could put major projects at risk in the future. Put bluntly, there is little point planning the high-speed rail network across the North – which we desperately need – if we are not also training the engineers to build it.
While further education colleges should be playing a role addressing this challenge – and in many cases are doing their best to do so – the current funding system does nothing to help them in this task. In addition, they will have to get to grips with the new T levels and technical education pathways, which will further increase the pressure on them.
As a country, for decades we have failed to help young people access the right skills. Too many of them are ending up with skills for which there is little demand in the job market, and which fail to address regional and national priorities. At the heart of the problem is the current funding system for colleges, which encourages the provision of courses on the basis of cost, rather than the courses’ value to employers. The result is predictable, with employers unable to recruit the people they need, resulting in a quarter of vacancies going unfilled owing to a lack of appropriately skilled candidates. Meanwhile, talented young people are struggling to find work because they have taken a career path developed with little focus on a likely destination.
Correcting this mismatch between supply and demand cannot be done from Whitehall. It requires partnership working on a scale large enough to plan strategically, but small enough to understand the needs of the local economy.
The WYCA, in partnership with the Leeds City Region Local Enterprise Partnership, has stepped into that role and used the existing limited devolution of skills funding to produce positive results. We have invested £79 million of skills capital funding, alongside £45m from colleges and employers, to radically reshape college facilities across West Yorkshire. Between 2014 and 2016, devolved City Deal funding was used to support 6,200 young people, aged 16-24, into jobs, full-time education and training.
Taking back control
These are just a few examples of what we are achieving. Our frustration lies with the fact that we could do so much more. Giving us control of FE capital and revenue budgets, including those for adult education, would allow us to far more effectively align what our colleges are doing with what our business community requires.
Control of careers education and budgets to help employers offering apprenticeships would further allow for the creation of a genuinely joined-up approach; turning the skills challenge facing areas such as mine into opportunities for our young people to thrive would then drive a significant increase in the growth of our economy.
We believe that local bursaries could attract more students into engineering, transport and construction infrastructure, and digital courses; in turn, the supply of young people going into careers that could benefit our region would be increased. We would reward colleges that developed the courses that employers are demanding, to ensure they have up-to-date resources, cutting-edge facilities and teachers with industry experience.
Instead, in West Yorkshire, we have seen local colleges forced through an area-review process in which learners and their needs were not a significant factor in decision-making. The process also failed to address the fundamental challenge arising from the inadequate level of past investment in our vocational education system.
The downgrading of growth and productivity forecasts in last month’s Budget was a reminder of the scale of the task facing the country – as well as the legacy of a long-term failure to invest in upskilling the workforce.
In that context, it was particularly disappointing to hear the government confirm that its previous commitment to devolving the adult education budget to some areas will be delayed until 2019. We need to be accelerating and widening this process, not slowing it down.
We are working hard to develop and implement plans that will dramatically improve the local economy. The alignment of skills provision with our economic needs is an essential step to unleashing that potential. It is time for the government to hand over the necessary powers and let us get on with the job of truly creating a Northern Powerhouse worthy of the name.
Susan Hinchcliffe chairs the West Yorkshire Combined Authority and is the leader of Bradford Council