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Prioritising skills in Birmingham

Source: PSE April/May 2018

Paul Swinney, head of policy and research at Centre for Cities, argues that Birmingham must focus on addressing its skills deficit in order to thrive economically. 

For much of the late 20th century, Birmingham struggled to shake off its post-industrial hangover. Globalisation took a heavy toll on the city’s car and metal manufacturing industries, resulting in around 160,000 jobs being lost between 1951 and 1991. A big part of the problem was the city’s reliance on low-skilled, routinised roles, which could easily be shipped out to cheaper labour markets across the globe.

In recent decades, there have been signs that the city’s economy has turned a corner. Private sector jobs have increased significantly in the city centre since the turn of the century, reflected in the decision by big firms such as HSBC and Deutsche Bank to locate there.

However, Birmingham continues to punch below its weight economically – and once again, the main obstacle it faces is down to low skills levels across the city.

As a recent Centre for Cities report shows, Birmingham has the highest share of people with no qualifications of any UK city – 16% of working-age residents, which is twice as high as the national average.

Nor do the city’s skills challenges stop there, and Birmingham’s schools are also underperforming. For example, in 2015-16, just over half of students in Birmingham undertaking GCSEs gained A*-C in five or more subjects including English and Maths, less than the average across England.

Addressing these skills deficits will be crucial in ensuring that Birmingham can continue to attract more high-paying firms and jobs in the future, and to enable its residents to have the qualifications they need to benefit from such opportunities.

This should be a top priority for local leaders in the city – from the West Midlands metro mayor Andy Street to the city council and business leaders. And while short-term action is needed, tackling these problems will also require a long-term and joined-up commitment from agencies in the city.

What should be done? A good place to start would be to focus on improving early years education, which evidence suggests can have a lasting impact on a child’s life. Currently all two-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds are entitled to free early education, but uptake of this is patchy. Local leaders should encourage and support more children to benefit from this support by using local authority data to identify those in the city who are currently missing out, and making direct contact with their families.

Another crucial factor will be improving literacy and numeracy skills for people of all age ranges in Birmingham. There is no silver bullet for doing so, but raising teaching standards will have a positive impact, and so attracting and retaining talented teachers should be a priority. The West Midlands Combined Authority should work with the regional school commissioner, universities and Teach First to develop a city region framework that provides career progression opportunities and professional development to teachers in the area. Providing quality careers advice and support for young people in the city more generally will also be important, and Street’s mayoral mentoring scheme is a welcome step in the right direction.

The third key point to address is tackling adult skills levels – both for those already in the workplace, and those currently out of work. The mayor has recognised the need to tackle this issue, and has set out plans for a West Midlands Skills Fund based on the apprenticeship levy paid by firms in the city region. This could make a difference in ensuring the resources are available to provide better – and more extensive – training for adults across the city.

However, he currently lacks the scope to use the apprenticeship levy in this way. The government should build on the city region’s current devolution deal by giving the mayor and local leaders in Birmingham greater powers to act on this issue, and to tackle the city’s wider skills challenges.




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