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Solace blog

9th December 2016

Delivering the Northern Powerhouse: Economic Regeneration and Skills

Earlier this year I spoke at an event at Salford University on education and skills in the northern powerhouse, alongside Salford City College, New Economy, and our Chamber of Commerce in Greater Manchester. There was a lot of interest in how we are aiming to “get on with the job” in Oldham on skills and employment and devolution, and some useful lessons to share across Solace. On the back of this, a Prospects fringe event with myself and Jo Miller at our Summit in Gateshead this year looked at similar issues.

Following the exhortations from the new Government on “JAMs”, the emerging narrative on “inclusive growth” in local government, and of course the new Casey report, it has to be positive that we are seeing a strong body of thought and work emerging across Solace which is looking at employment support and economic growth activity as a genuinely cradle to grave approach. What is critical is not just focussing on individual cohorts – typically young people, NEETs, or unemployed residents – but to capture these groups as part of a wider strategy also accounting for support for people in-work enabling them to progress in their careers, earnings and family well-being.

In Oldham, the strategic context for skills and employment devolution is positive – against the backdrop of the four ground-breaking devolution deals for Greater Manchester. This is has helped set a positive context for tackling low productivity and improved skills performance against a backdrop of relentless change and reform in the national skills and employment support system.

Focussing on our key stakeholders is central to this. In Oldham, we see these as including schools and post-16 training providers (colleges, 6 forms, independent providers and more) – who are system leaders operating increasingly independently. Employers, focussed on our key growth sectors are also in this group. Individuals are critical and now more powerful in a redesigned and marketised system – with increasing power and leverage in a much more “personalised” skills system characterised by increasing levels of loan funding. And last but not least, local government still has a key role supporting the private sector to thrive as key customers of the skills system, and co-ordinating provision for disadvantaged or marginalised groups.

We know there are multiple challenges facing the skills system in Oldham and across Greater Manchester, ranging from FE reform and funding pressures, the growth in the apprenticeships levy, and a historic skills gap which presents big challenges to upskill the adult population as well as young people coming into the world of work for the first time.

At the same time we know that in Oldham and across the city region, higher skill occupations are likely to grow more than intermediate and lower skill jobs, so keeping pace with this economic change will be essential to help our local community thrive and prosper.

Individuals and employers are now set to have an even bigger say in shaping the skills system of the future. The amount of loan funding available for training for people over the age of 19 has grown, and local areas will want to have an influence over demand for that provision. In addition, the apprenticeship levy will next year provide a very real market-oriented mechanism for apprenticeship training. Solace has also recently been invited by DCLG to support a programme of work nationally on the introduction of the Levy in local government and I look forward to engaging with colleagues on that over the coming months.

All of this spells big change for how colleges will forward plan their budgets, and increases employer leverage as customers of colleges and other training providers. As I cautioned at our Summit, apprenticeship training is not the right route for everybody, and the skills system still needs to adapt and change to cater for non-apprenticeship training routes where those better suit individuals and employers.

Finally, employer voice matters a lot in these debates. For Oldham this means a focus on health and social care, services, engineering and manufacturing, construction and property, and logistics. It means re-designing our partnerships to better accommodate the needs and voice of these sectors. And it means helping the skills system do what it already does well better still – responding to employers workforce needs.

In reality, labour is mobile, and Councils often grapple with the reality of this against the desire to be self-sufficient in employment terms. What matters more is working locally with employers and with the opportunity of devolution to try to build a new skills and employment system that works well for the people who need it most – our residents. Our ground-breaking Career Advancement Service, launched this week in Oldham, is I hope a sign of things to come in local government trying to make a reality of this pledge for low skill, low pay working adults as much as our “typical” target groups.

During 2017, linked to the current RSA Commission on Inclusive Growth and the recent establishment of the JRF Inclusive Growth Advisory Unit in Manchester University, Solace will be taking forward a new piece of work on this agenda picking up on the debates we had at our Summit in Gateshead. Jo Miller and I, with others in the SOLACE family, are firmly committed to this agenda as well as getting a real contribution from across our membership to designing this work. We’d love to hear people’s thoughts so please get engaged and join the debate as there are very few areas of the country without a direct interest in making this happen for our local communities.


This blog builds on a column originally published in the Municipal Journal in May 2016

By Tom Stannard, Director of Economy and Skills, Oldham Council, and Solace Deputy Spokesperson on Economic Prosperity and Housing