Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
The pandemic has been hard on the West Midlands, both in terms of the terrible personal cost to local people and the impact it has had on our economy. Now, as we face the challenges created by Covid, how we equip residents with new skills will be a key element of our recovery.
We are ambitious. I want to generate 100,000 new jobs in just two years here, which would represent the biggest surge in employment growth ever seen in the region. How? By building on growth in sectors like construction and digital, by getting the most out of opportunities like HS2 and the Commonwealth Games, and by seizing the chance to become leaders in emerging fields like the green economy.
To make this happen training will be critical. The region’s young population, its excellent connectivity and strengths in key sectors all provide the ingredients for growth – but to succeed we must have the right skills.
I want to use this column to explain how regional control over adult education is already helping to deliver significant results in skills – and how I believe that success provides a compelling argument for further devolution of spending power.
For many years, the West Midlands suffered from a significant skills gap, with far too many of our residents having no recognisable qualification. Now, things are changing.
Latest figures show that, in 2020, the number of people with NVQ Level 3+ qualifications across the seven boroughs of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) area increased by 120,000 to 1,444,000. At the same time, the number of people with no qualifications reduced by 66,700 to 223,800 in the same period – a remarkable decrease of 23 per cent.
The close working relationship between the WMCA and our many excellent colleges has helped us achieve this – along with the devolution of adult education spending, which has put decision making into local hands.
For two years, the WMCA has had devolved control of the region’s £130 million adult education budget – funding further education providers and working with them to equip local people with the skills actually needed by employers. As a result, tens of thousands of residents are benefiting from valuable qualifications, and businesses are seeing colleges launch courses which will have a real-world impact on the employment market.
Crucially, the West Midlands also boasts a unique collaboration of all colleges across the region, which has helped deliver results. One example of this united approach is Reignite Your Future, a regional skills recovery programme organised by sector-based academies that provides free training courses, creating thousands of opportunities to retrain in direct response to the pandemic.
We know there are jobs in sectors including construction, digital, and health and social care – but local people need the right skills to land these opportunities. Devolved adult education funding means we’re able to help equip residents with the skills needed to do exactly that.
This is not rocket science – it’s a simple question of having the local knowledge to understand where employment demand will be, and then having the spending control to invest in the skills training required.
A great example of this is the huge retro-fitting programme that is going to be needed to make nearly 300,000 homes across the region more energy efficient. This retrofitting would target older homes that have low energy efficiency, which causes households to pay far too much on their energy bills. Work would include insulating walls and double or triple glazing windows.
We are already working with Dudley College on a national pilot scheme to train skilled people to do retrofit jobs, ensuring there is a supply of appropriate people for small businesses setting up in these new arenas.
Also in Dudley, the Institute of Technology will be among the first to start providing T Levels in subjects like digital production, design, surveying and planning from September, all of which are sectors that are expected to provide employment opportunities over the next decade.
Similarly, as our automotive sector continues its switch to electrification, we are beginning to train people to become the mechanics of the future, with the skills needed to keep electric vehicles on the road. The Light Electric and Alternative Fuel (LEAF) Vehicle Training Centre at Walsall College enhances the skills of experienced mechanics and technicians, responding to employers’ needs and helping get local people into good quality jobs.
All of this is being backed up by capital investment to ensure college facilities are equipped to deliver new skills. The creation of the new Institute of Technology in the Black Country has progressed throughout the pandemic, while a bid for £25 million from the Government will help finance a £36 million Higher Education “university park” complex, again at Dudley College. It will provide higher education courses for the health sector and is anticipated to be up and running by Autumn 2024.
Construction is another sector predicted to see significant growth across the region, with recent research suggesting businesses will need to recruit an additional 25,000 new workers by 2025 just to meet demand.
The City of Wolverhampton College recently opened a purpose-built plant training facility, backed by the WMCA, offering high-quality sector-specific training to people of all ages and abilities, from beginner to advanced level.
And the 17.5 million National Brownfield Institute in Wolverhampton will develop land reclamation technology that will provide even more construction opportunities going forward.
Finally, the WMCA is working with colleges and training providers to pioneer ways to deliver digital training, most notably highly-successful Digital Bootcamps that give residents the skillset to deal with the challenge of growing automation. In a great example of localised, targeted delivery, a £5 million Digital Retraining fund was created to train up to 1,900 people over three years. Now there is a clear need for further national agreed funding to be devolved to build on this activity.
In the two years since the WMCA was handed control of the adult education budget, we have seen local decision making and collaborative working make a real difference to the employment prospects of residents.
The figures speak for themselves and are the result of local colleges, employers and business organisations working together to identify what skills will be needed going forward. As we build back better from the pandemic, there is a compelling argument that we should look to expand upon this winning approach.
In my re-election manifesto, I spoke about the need to devolve all 16-18 further education funding to the West Midlands, so that we can ensure that it is aligned with the successful approach we are taking with adult education. I believe it’s now time to consider this next step, to give even more local people the skills they will need to prosper.