Skills in Essex - where do we go next?

Richard Davidson, director at Willmott Dixon reflects on a recent Essex skills event and how we equip young people with the capabilities for future success.

Over the summer I attended a virtual Essex skills summit. We heard from 5 passionate and well-informed speakers on the skills challenge and solutions in our region, and discussed how to take our next steps.

The expert view

It was a stark reminder from MP Robert Halfon that we still have a significant skills shortage and that we need a multitude of solutions.

He highlighted to us that our economy has been changing for some time now and we must equip ourselves with the right skills as we enter the 4th Industrial revolution. Many of our existing jobs will be replaced by more automation, improved robotics and Artificial Intelligence. He was also quick to identify these are not just traditional blue collar jobs and cited how the world of white collar jobs (such as accounting) was already seeing change through adoption of smart technology and algorithms.

The world of work is changing rapidly and so we must adapt our education system to get people ready for work.

Robert made a clear case for the improvement of careers advice and this point was echoed by Cllr Tony Ball,
Essex County Council's Cabinet Member for Education Excellence and Skills, who also called for support at early years to help children and parents see a wider range of careers and opportunities.

It was this point which was evident in many of the presentations about a multi-fronted approach to careers engagement with children, parents, educators and employers. A system where everyone can access more information and be inspired by a much broader range of employment pathways.

Alongside the number of jobs available, each presenter was keen to highlight the many different ways of getting work ready and to celebrate all jobs and education pathways. Vic Goddard, Principal of Passmores Academy, challenged us and himself to make sure vocational careers are given parity with graduate schemes. He asked us to think wider on what it means when we talk about all of the education options available and be as passionate about apprenticeships as we are for degrees. He also accepted there was no magic wand and we all have to keep playing our part in creating a system which provides best quality information and support.

The conversations covered the support for growing skills and jobs which suit a region’s strength, Cllr Andrew Johnson, leader of Harlow Council, was keen to remind us that Harlow was the birthplace of optical fibre technology and remains a strategic hub for advanced manufacturing and life sciences. With its great connections to London, Cambridge and beyond, Andrew was keen to identify future investments in the area should also mean delivery of new local jobs and training at the same time. It was widely accepted that uptake of STEM subjects needed to be supported and the creation of local jobs using this learning was fundamental to long term prosperity.

The presence of higher Gross Value Added (GVA) job opportunities was not lost on the panel and Will Allanson of Harlow College talked about the successes of working in closer partnership with employers to deliver work ready students. As well as engaging with larger companies, he had also been able to create a cluster of local SMEs to advise on the development of training courses at both the College’s advanced manufacturing centre in Harlow and the training centre at Stansted Airport. Employers of all sizes working together to help support training content and then benefiting directly with recruitment of trainees with precisely the skills needed to grow their businesses.

Assistance through the Essex Apprenticeship Levy Transfer fund

It was this joined up approach to the skills environment which our Director of Organisational Development Kate Jansen was able to demonstrate is in operation and reminded us all of the great steps which are being taken. A clear example of sharing is the opportunity which can arise from schemes such as the Essex Apprenticeship Levy Transfer fund. Larger companies such as Willmott Dixon are able to support local SMEs through their levy; enabling upskilling opportunities and investment in supply chain as well, contributing into a local economy at point of need.

Looking beyond the direct relationship in a supply chain, there was a conversation about working with anchor institutions in a region to create a focal point for skills investment. Cllr Ball identified these aren’t just the public sector institutions, but also businesses and not-for-profit organisations who are able to contribute to the demonstration of local careers and skills to all learners.

A point not lost on the panellists was the need to support life-long learners. Alongside the engagement with young people is the need to showcase that apprenticeships are applicable to all people and to suit all types of work. Kate Jansen was able to list off an array of recent Willmott Dixon apprenticeships in digital, finance and marketing, alongside more traditionally recognised construction site management and trades.

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How can more apprenticeships be stimulated?

Our attentions were taken by a question relating to how can more apprenticeships and local skills be stimulated. Panellists suggested a move to introduce apprenticeships for all public sector roles, a wider adoption of social value outcomes in public procurement policies, and for greater flexibility to allow employers to engage in shared apprenticeship schemes.

Above all it seems all the panellists could see great things are being done to enhance the skills agenda and those providing opportunities were doing it for all the right reasons. What seemed to be missing was a way of stitching things together to ensure all the investment, be this time or money, was working in the best interests of a local community and equipping people.

Rob Halfon had issued his call to arms for a ‘battle to create a nationwide apprentice and skills culture’, at the end of these discussions it felt he had some new recruits for his battalion.