For years, we have heard about the Northern Powerhouse and the investment pull of the South East. But what seems to be missing is the bit in the middle. As the principal of a college located in this “middle bit”, I believe it is high time the unique potential of this area of the UK was fully recognised.
This is why I was so delighted when, just before Christmas, business secretary Sajid Javid put his weight behind a Midlands Engine. What is even more pleasing is that skills development is seen as one of the key ingredients to turbocharge the region’s growth and that colleges are leading the skills proposition attached to this ambitious vision for our future.
The concept of the Midlands Engine is long overdue. In the 13 years between 1997 and 2010, manufacturing output in the Midlands fell by almost £3 billion to just under £12.6 billion. Productivity is 10 per cent lower than the national average and in 2013 there were 25,000 vacancies that were hard to fill owing to skills gaps.
The East and West Midlands are home to some of the UK’s best colleges and universities, as well as global businesses such as Rolls-Royce, Jaguar Land Rover and Bombardier, to name but a few. This area is the hub for advanced manufacturing in the UK, with a long tradition of leading the world in terms of engineering excellence. But over the past decade, this potential seems to have been lost.
It is through the combined weight and wisdom of 25 universities, 54 colleges and countless schools working with businesses that the Midlands Engine aims to create an additional 300,000 jobs, boost the UK economy by £34 billion and double the number of apprenticeships delivered within the Midlands to 800,000.
To me, this is a perfect example of what can happen when the will of colleges, universities and employers are combined. Clearly, the proof of the pudding will indeed be in the delivery of these ambitious targets. But what I have found most gratifying of all is the passion and enthusiasm with which every single one of the 54 colleges has engaged with this agenda. Nobody was brought to the table kicking and screaming – quite the contrary in fact.
Colleges and universities have been keen to engage with employers on their terms and have been quick to find solutions and strategies to help the “bit in the middle” thrive and, more importantly, power the UK’s economic recovery and its resurgence on the world stage as an engineering force to be reckoned with.
No individual college can achieve these kind of outcomes alone, nor can one provider capitalise on all the opportunities that exist as part of the Midlands Engine. That is why this model of collaboration has so much potential. As a collective, we have come together to kick-start the Midlands’ economy. We are stronger for it and I am sure that, in time, the Midlands will reap the rewards of this joined-up thinking.
Dame Asha Khemka is principal of the West Nottinghamshire College Group and a member of the Midlands Engine senior steering group