Invest Midlands: Addressing sci-tech skills shortage is key to knowledge-led levelling up

Join the region's business leaders for our exclusive conference on May 26

Neil Murray is the CEO of Impact Data Metrics (IDM) – an advanced data analytics business with a particular focus on place and sector-based investment.

Neil Murray

IDM uses proprietary machine learning and AI to derive insights from more than 3 billion records. The quality, accuracy and granularity of the datasets are relied on by public sector policymakers and blue-chip executives across the UK.

The business is the official data and insights partner of Invest Midlands and will lead a session called Chasing Unicorns – Innovation Led Growth in the Midlands. He will be joined by Jim Campbell OBE, founder of Surescreen Diagnostics, Henrietter Brealey, CEO of Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and David Hardman, Managing Director, Bruntwood SciTech – Birmingham.

Click here to book your tickets for our landmark Invest Midlands online conference on 26 May.

THIS year started with a metaphorical shot in the arm for the UK’s reputation as a research and innovation powerhouse. The University of Oxford rightly received plaudits for its collaborative effort with AstraZeneca to develop and validate a COVID-19 vaccine in a fraction of the time these endeavours usually take.

Higher education is, by objective measures and league tables, something we truly excel at on a world stage. It’s celebrated and held in high regard by the majority in the UK. Vocational training, by contrast, is very much seen as a poor relation, despite multiple attempts to correct that misconception. And it is a misconception – one which the country must address if we are to drive an economic recovery from this pandemic built on knowledge-led innovation.

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In doing so, there is a golden opportunity to erode decades of entrenched academic snobbery; to render science and technology as sectors that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds can see as relevant, not grandiose and out of reach. Researchers do not get far without highly skilled technicians and equipment operators. These are valuable roles and treated as such in most countries bar the UK. Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands hold these positions in the esteem they deserve and young people are aware that training as one is a secure route to a well-paid career.

In the Midlands, the need to overhaul the approach to vocational training is particularly pressing. The region has a low proportion of highly skilled people; around 15% below the national average. West fares worse than East: one in eight people in the former have no recognised qualification at all. With a Metro Mayor, and now control of the adult education budget, the West Midlands Combined Authority has scope to overhaul vocational training. Its policy to engage businesses more meaningfully in shaping further education (FE), to ensure a future workforce has the correct skills, is undoubtedly the right one.

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It is an approach echoed by the Department for Education, in its long-awaited Skills for Jobs whitepaper published in January, which looks to place more responsibility on employers. It was, however, short on specifics as to how this would work in practice.

Given the scale and critical nature of ensuring UK Plc has the right skills to thrive, the £65m “strategic development fund” devoted to improving FE-business collaboration seems light too.

Vocational training has received more cuts than any other form of education during the last decade. The annual mismatch in funding is stark and highlighted by the 2019 Augar review: 1.2 million undergraduates in higher education are supported by £8 billion of government funding, while just £2 billion is allocated to almost double that number adult further education learners (2.2 million).

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For too long, attempts to improve vocational training have been limited to re-branded qualifications which seem startlingly similar and equally ineffective. University Technical Colleges (UTCs) provide one route to integrating vocational education – in partnership with industry – into the curriculum for 14-19 year olds. However, the UTC concept has struggled to gain traction and, in some cases has faced outright hostility from local authorities. The apprenticeship system is another example where limited impact has been made on vocational outcomes. T-levels are the current qualifications proposed as the answer.

It is not enough to simply rebranding vocational training and qualifications on a regular basis in the hope that things will change. T-levels and other initiatives will fail without proper funding and incentives from government and, critically, engagement from businesses of all sizes. But how can businesses engage when they don’t fully understand the value of a qualification? How does a T-Level compare to A-Levels, GCSEs and BTECs? There needs to be a clear communication strategy from Government to business and, given that, in the UK, the overwhelming majority are SMEs, simply targeting big corporates or leaving it to schools and colleges, is simply not going to work.

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If the government is serious about both levelling up and establishing Britain as a world-leader in multiple high-growth sectors, it may be time to look again at what is holding us back and re-balance spending aimed at boosting the knowledge economy.

This administration has committed to a record increase in public investment in R&D – reaching £22bn per year by 2024/25.

If there is any chance of this funding playing its part in establishing the country at the forefront of cutting-edge areas like aerospace, clean energy, automotive technologies and artificial intelligence, it must be supported by properly funded and promoted vocational training of data analysts, lab technicians and robotics operators.

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It is only by providing businesses with a skilled workforce and young people with rewarding, secure vocationally-based careers that the UK will be competitive in the critical industries of the future.