Skills are now ‘firmly on the north’s agenda’

Justine Andrew

By Justine Andrew, Market Director, Education, KPMG Leeds. 

The north of England’s business leaders are increasing their focus on the skills agenda. We’re now operating in a world where new technology is being introduced at an unprecedented rate. The workplace is becoming increasingly digitised and there is a growing recognition that we need to ensure the next generation is prepared to participate.

To achieve this, we need a more inclusive skills system that is fully aligned to the needs of businesses. Vocational models of education that are geared to preparing young people for the workplace, such as apprenticeships and T levels, are becoming more popular. We must embrace this direction of travel and reappraise a skills system that has valued academic attainment above all else for too long.  We also need to think seriously about lifelong learning and adapting our skills system to reflect the fact we are all likely need to learn continuously to meet the changes in the workplace.

The good news is local governments in the north are starting to work with businesses and educators to deliver a framework that incorporates a broad range of training methods. In Leeds City Region the recently launched Skills Commission has local government, the LEP, independent experts and businesses collaborating to look at how we can shape the future of the skills system locally, so that it better meets the needs of individuals, businesses and the economy.

New approaches will need new structures, and collaboration across education providers is also likely to become far more prevalent. The Professional Skills Partnership is a good example of this. Yorkshire universities and colleges are working to develop programmes which aim to meet the needs of employers across the region.

Progressive, collaborative approaches to education like these can give northern companies access to a larger, ‘work-ready’ pool of talent. Yet such a seismic shift in thinking will not be easy, which is why the buy-in of organisations spanning local government, business and education is so important.

The evolving role of universities 

We are very lucky to have some of the best universities in the country on our doorstep. However, a lot of the UK’s most prestigious institutions still focus disproportionately on academic ability, often at the expense of other areas of aptitude. This is especially true when it comes to entry requirements and the courses they offer. This predisposition fails students who are better suited to more practical, vocational education – a group the northern business community is keen to access.

By thinking innovatively and expanding their curriculums to include more vocational courses, universities can help improve local skills provision and benefit financially from a broader pool of prospective students. The north’s higher education sector is well placed to lead the charge. For example, Leeds Trinity University offers a range of tailored apprenticeship programmes designed in collaboration with employers. Leeds Beckett University is also working with regional and national employers to deliver industry relevant degree programmes and the University of Leeds is currently incorporating entrepreneurship into their undergraduate medical degree.

Another great example of an institution approaching course design from a workplace skills perspective in partnership with others is Manchester’s UA92. The brainchild of ex-Manchester United players Gary and Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt, UA92 offers a range of undergraduate programmes in partnership with Lancaster University, designed to give students the tools they need to succeed in the modern workplace. The initiative works closely with industry and forms part of a wider plan from Trafford Council to bring innovative skills provision to local communities.

Importantly, UA92 also has a comprehensive social mobility strategy to encourage young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds into further education. We’re working in partnership with UA92 to support this strategy on several fronts, including providing guidance around targeted outreach with businesses and schools, contextualised admissions policies and more directly through skills workshops and work placements for students.

The value of apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are hugely important. They promote diversity, inclusion and social mobility and are designed to provide training for a specific role – an attractive proposition for a business looking to future proof its workforce.

KPMG is a big supporter of apprenticeships. We redesigned our recruitment process to access their benefits and offer opportunities to candidates that in the past may not have applied for positions within business advisory firms.

Large employers looking to take advantage of apprenticeships should take note of recent changes to the government’s apprenticeship levy. Since it was introduced two years ago, the levy has been criticised for being too restrictive. But in November, Philip Hammond announced the qualifications eligible for levy funding were to be broadened and organisations obliged to pay will soon be able to share a quarter of their funding with their supply chain.

Going beyond education

While improving access to training and a broader set of qualifications is crucial, we also need to think beyond education if we’re going to retain the talent we cultivate to support the north’s economic growth.

There must be a concerted effort from public and private sector organisations to make our towns and cities attractive places for young people to live and work. This involves investment in affordable housing, connectivity and amenities as well as the provision of rewarding job opportunities.

This rounded view of the region’s skills challenge is now essential. The world is moving quickly, and the requirements of businesses are set to keep pace. A system that prepares the next generation to meet those requirements is within reach. We just need to be ambitious enough to pursue it