Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
Covid-19 has hit the West Midlands hard. Livelihoods and life chances have been impacted by a pandemic that stopped our economy in its tracks – but we are determined to do what we can locally to get people back into work. Improving the skills of our people will be vital if we are to fill the new jobs we create.
The Conservatives have always been the party of opportunity – encouraging ambition and social mobility. We must return to that guiding principle and drive a revolution in skills and training to rebuild our economy.
I was encouraged last week when the Prime Minister put skills front and centre of the Government’s agenda, with a commitment to provide free courses for those without A-level or equivalent qualification. This commitment came alongside a package of other measures, including expanding the “digital bootcamp” concept pioneered here.
In the West Midlands, we know how improving skills can help build a strong economy. Before the pandemic struck, our economy was growing faster than any other part of the UK other than London. We had record jobs numbers and were setting records for housebuilding and productivity.
A significant part of this economic success was down to improving skill levels. Much work has been done to turn around a skills gap that, in 2007, branded us the worst qualified UK region. Back then, a fifth of young people here left school with no qualifications at all.
When I became Mayor of the West Midlands, this was an unacceptable situation I was determined to put right. As the work of the Social Mobility Commission has shown, an individual’s skills determine their long-term social mobility. What’s more, poor skill levels can lock families into disadvantage for generations. As someone who grew up here, this issue gnawed at me. I have tried to provide business-like leadership to tackle the problem head-on and deliver real results.
Our seven member boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton have worked together to address the skills issues we faced. While we still face challenges, the improvement has been marked.
By last year, more than 50 per cent of local people were qualified at level three. In the Black Country, where the gap had been the most pronounced, more residents are now educated to degree level or above than ever before. The percentage of people with no qualification continues to reduce.
As we work to create new opportunities and jobs in the wake of the pandemic, the UK must take a similar approach. Because as the economy resets, those new jobs will emerge – and they will often have new requirements in terms of skills.
Our digital bootcamp, now backed by a further £1.5 million of funding, provides twenty-first century skills for thousands of people. Launched in September, the free to all ‘School of Code’ bootcamp is full-time and takes a learner from novice to software developer in just 16 weeks – before helping them find their first role in tech.
In a similar way, we are determined to ensure local people have the skills to benefit from jobs created by major investments like HS2 and the Commonwealth Games. We have set up our “Construction Gateway” which is training people to build the transport infrastructure and homes needed for our region’s future. The Gateway provides recognised qualifications and work experience to join the construction workforce as we Build Back Better.
One of the most notable successes of the West Midlands’ skills resurgence has been apprenticeships. Here, we use unspent apprenticeship levy from big businesses like HSBC, Lloyds Bank and Enterprise Car Hire to fund apprentices at smaller businesses. This unique arrangement means instead of unspent levy disappearing back to London it stays in the West Midlands, growing businesses and helping them ‘skill up’ local people.
Young people are among the hardest hit by the economic effects of Covid-19, which is why we are also launching six youth hubs, working with the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions to link employment and training services to make sure they target young people. In just a few weeks, the first job placements for 16 to 24 year olds under the Kickstart Scheme are likely to begin. Kickstart, and our hubs, can provide direct and tangible help, providing work and teaching skills.
Of course, to deliver these skills, we need a properly equipped higher and further education sector. While our colleges have been backed by guaranteed funding throughout the pandemic, we have also pressed ahead with developments like the Institute of Technology in Dudley and Wolverhampton’s National Brownfield Institute.
Funding of almost £12 million will start to rejuvenate our existing college buildings too – but this represents only the first down payment of the five-year £1.5 billion capital investment announced by Gavin Williamson in March. I will be lobbying to ensure the West Midlands gets its share of this vital funding.
While our colleges work brilliantly together – and have been at their responsive best throughout the pandemic – the West Midlands is also lucky to have a remarkable higher education sector. Behind almost every economic success story lies one of our universities, which lead the way in all kinds of emerging sectors, from electric vehicles to life sciences. They will play their part too.
And, as we invest in the bricks and mortar of training and education, we are also embracing the lessons of lockdown – and the growing importance of online learning. We’ve teamed up with provider Coursera to offer 3,800 online courses, offering top class skills and qualifications to anyone who is unemployed, recently made redundant or furloughed.
The West Midlands Combined Authority has owned the devolved Adult Education Budget, ensuring every pound delivers more qualifications that employers actually want. Now we need to see more of these funds devolved. We have shown what we can do.
These are just some of the ideas that helped turn the West Midlands from the worst qualified area in the UK to the nation’s fastest-growing regional economy. When I was 18, this was a place that talented young adults often felt they needed to leave to realise their potential. Now, well qualified individuals want to move here. We are proof that better skills drive economic success.
Our focus, right now, must be on driving down the infection rate to defeat Covid-19. But as we plot our economic recovery, we must show we are the party of opportunity, and provide people with the skills needed to rebuild our economic fortunes.