What skills will be needed as our economy recovers from the pandemic?
It’s an important question that the Skills Advisory Panel, which I chair on behalf of the LLEP, has been asking businesses, universities, colleges and all the organisations whose representatives make up the panel.
What skills will people Leicester and Leicestershire need to develop, to make sure that our city and county bounces back strongly from COVID-19? What are businesses and employers reporting in terms of their skills needs and shortages? How equipped are education and training providers to deliver these skills – in the very short term, and into the future? How can we make sure that we have a workforce ready to meet the needs of our economy – now and over the next few years? What investment do we need to try and secure the best possible training facilities and equipment, and encourage people of all ages to be aspirational about their learning?
These are big questions, and everyone has different opinions about the right answers – including me! As Principal of Leicester College in my day job, I have to plan a curriculum which meets the needs of young people and adults from all backgrounds and at all different stages of learning. It must acknowledge their demand for certain courses and career pathways, whilst also ensuring that these lead ultimately to employment (or further/higher education where appropriate) and respects the overall direction of government policy.
Following the pandemic and the uncertainty about the longer-term impact, businesses are equally challenged around predicting the skills our region might need in the future and finding the funding to develop the right training interventions. All of this makes it even more important for all the partners with a stake in skills and training to come together around a Skills Plan, based on good, regional and local evidence.
The Skills Advisory Panel has already commissioned and published a Skills Report, which contains a wealth of evidence about both the current skills issues in Leicester and Leicestershire and an assessment of future needs. We have also developed a headline Skills Plan, which will be added to and evolved over the next few months and there is a strong skills element to the Economic Recovery Plan which sets out the steps that need to be taken if the region is to ‘build back better’ from the pandemic.
Leicester and Leicestershire is home to over one million people with a working age population of 679,000. Seventy-six thousand local students are in further education in any given year, while our three world-class universities produce 19,000 graduates annually. We want to harness this supply of local talent and build on regional strengths that will form the backbone of our economy for years to come.
We know good careers education and meaningful encounters with the world of work are key factors to unlocking potential in our young people. The expansion of the LLEP Careers Hub is a positive example of connecting education with the world of work at a strategic level to better prepare young for people for the jobs of today and the future.
We have a traditionally strong manufacturing base, with 14% of our workforce employed in the sector compared to just 9% nationally. Leicestershire is home to two science-focused Enterprise Zones, which are making huge strides in the fields of electric vehicles and life sciences. Leicester and Leicestershire is a seedbed for start-ups, with data from 2020 showing a 27% increase in new businesses, even during the Covid-19 pandemic.
However there are challenges: local wages are on average £70 lower per week than national levels, and £19 per week lower than our nearest regional neighbours. The unemployment rate has risen significantly, and many people laid off due to the pandemic will need to re-skill in order to return to work.
Our skills plan, therefore, will look to transition Leicester and Leicestershire from a labour-intensive economy to a high-skilled, high-paid workforce that can support our area strengths including science and engineering.
The demand and drive for digital skills at all levels and across all sectors of the economy has increased at an unprecedented rate, and through our Digital Skills Partnership we will bring together providers and employers to ensure that we can meet current and future needs.
We must also ensure that Leicester and Leicestershire is prepared for the “fourth industrial revolution,” which is already underway and will see a huge boom in low-carbon, sustainable technologies and infrastructure in the coming decades. If all jobs in the future are green jobs, our skills provision must reflect this to ensure we produce a workforce ready to meet these new challenges.
Already we can see the green shoots of recovery from Covid-19, as advertised job vacancies in Leicester and Leicestershire have significantly increased from March 2021, and are now exceeding pre-pandemic levels. Health, social care, logistics and business development professionals are in particular demand, but so are transferrable skills such as communication skills, customer services, management and sales.
Thousands of young people and adults join our educational institutions and training organisations every year, and thousands more progress into employment. We need to make sure that we equip those people with the skills they need to succeed, meet the skills needs and demands of business, and build a consensus around what we want to be famous for in Leicester and Leicestershire in the future.