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How the West Midlands CA seeks to close the skills gap

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Julie Nugent, director of productivity and skills at West Midlands CA, explains how it intends spending its £126m skills budget.

Fact file

  • Project name: Managing the adult education budget for the West Midlands
  • Objectives: Deliver the £126m adult education budget
  • Timescale: Funding starts in August 2019
  • Cost: Costs covered within £126m allocation
  • Number of staff working on project: Nine
  • Outcomes: Our objectives include: improving skills and productivity, helping more people into good jobs, upskilling the current workforce
  • Officer email: Clare Hatton, clare.hatton@wmca.org.uk

Devolution is driving innovation in the West Midlands. As government powers and funding shift from central London into our region, we have the opportunity to use our local knowledge to find new solutions to old problems.

At the West Midlands CA, the productivity and skills directorate is at the forefront of a number of unique pilots which aim to help people gain new skills, cut unemployment, equip a workforce for the future, and provide a pipeline of talent to serve record investment in the region.

Our projects aiming to improve opportunities for our communities and businesses include:

  • Connected Communities, which works with long-term unemployed people to improve their employment chances;
  • Transition to Work, which aims to find meaningful work placements for young people;
  • Construction Gateway, which aims to make 1,500 unemployed people site-ready for construction jobs;
  • And our unique powers to transfer apprenticeship levy from levy-paying businesses to small-to-medium enterprises to subsidise 100% of apprenticeship training costs.

This is set against a backdrop of renaissance in the West Midlands.

Civic pride is growing, with Coventry set to be 2021 Capital of Culture, and Birmingham hosting the 2022 Commonwealth Games. Our economy is growing too. GVA, skills and employment levels are improving – and investment is increasing, with companies like HS2, Deloitte, HSBC and PwC all expanding.

Unfortunately, too many communities are still not participating in this economic success. Currently, the regional average employment rate of 68% is well below the national average (75%), and there are particular challenges for our BAME communities.

We will build on our experience, co-designing provision with employers, colleges and providers

Too many of our residents lack skills, particularly at higher levels, with less than a third (30%) qualified to NVQ Level 4 – this in an economy where, by 2024, 42% of all jobs will be at Level 4 and above. We need to respond to these challenges.

In 2017-18, only 6% of the adult education budget locally went towards helping our residents gain Level 3 skills (only 1% of all enrolments).

From August 2019, the entire £126m adult education budget will be transferred to the combined authority. Our view is that national funding systems have frustrated the further education sector’s ability to respond to regional and local skills challenges.

The causes of this are complex – and include a lack of strategic investment in FE, particularly in capital; cuts in funding; and national prioritisation of scarce resource.

We know the West Midlands needs a different approach.

Last year, we worked with regional partners to establish a shared ambition for skills: more people in employment, more people in higher-skilled jobs, and a more agile skills system.

We’ve already started to use devolved powers to underpin new ways of working: and, for the adult education budget, this is symbolised by the creation of the Further Education Skills & Productivity Group, featuring the region’s 21 colleges. This, along with regional representatives from adult and community learning providers and the Association of Employment & Learning Providers, has been critical to the development of our skills policy.

For example, we know our region needs more technical skills, but we also know establishing a new technical skills offer for young people and adults is not easy. Our sector needs new models of delivery, new teaching capabilities and significant investment in facilities and kit.

Regional partners are working closely to understand and mitigate the risks in developing new provision, helping the sector to rebuild capacity to address our changing economic needs. We will build on our experience, co-designing provision with employers, colleges and provider to create programmes which will make a real difference.

Our career learning pilots provided subsidies to support adults in priority Level 3 qualifications, as well as testing sector-led innovations around delivery and fees structures, to develop new provision that can better address current and future economic needs.

Our Construction Gateway project works with key construction employers to co-design the training that will meet their immediate recruitment needs. Working with employers like HS2, Balfour Beatty and Laing Murphy, we have developed intensive programmes to train unemployed people with critical skills in groundworks, plant machine operations and demolition – all skills in huge demand.

Colleges and providers have developed flexible programmes to deliver these skills and our jobcentres have released unemployed people to participate on these courses, without impacting on benefits. The result has been a steady stream of skilled workers to meet local skills needs – with over 50% of participants all finding work in the construction industry.

The Gateway project is funded by £5m from the national retraining fund – and we are due to launch a similar scheme focussing on digital skills later this year.

Mick, 58, was out of work for several years before going through the Construction Gateway. Now he’s a trainee archaeologist – a career he’d dreamed about, but never thought he’d have a chance to do. Mick’s journey, from ill-health and benefits to meaningful training and employment, involved close collaboration between WMCA, the Department for Work & Pensions (and JobCentre Plus), contractors MOLA Headland and Laing Murphy, and the region’s FE colleges and providers.

There are thousands of people like Mick in the region – those who have the enthusiasm and experience to work but don’t necessarily have clear pathways to access the training needed for the types of skilled jobs being created in our booming economic sectors – such as construction, digital, automotive and manufacturing.

We intend to use our adult education budget provision to find more new approaches to up the skills of our communities and boost career prospects.

We have earmarked just under £100m of the £126m budget for existing colleges and training providers. But we have also undertaken a tender exercise for a slice of that budget – around £28m – which we want to use to respond to local priorities for improving education, training and productivity across the West Midlands. This will target the unemployed as well as those in work who want the opportunity to re-train or boost their career.

Of that £28m tender, two parts total £11.5m each – the first focussing on helping to tackle youth unemployment, help people into work and to connect and train unemployed people with real jobs. The second focussed on targeting on those in work, with more support for upskilling programmes, including help for pre-apprenticeships. The third slice of that £28m tender, amounting to around £5m, will fund innovative and pilot approaches to solving local skills needs.

We will shortly publish our local industrial strategy – where we set out the challenges and the opportunities for our continued economic growth – and this overarching strategy dovetails with our approach to training and upskilling to meet the needs of our future economy.

FE will be critical to delivering this strategy, and we are asking government for more investment in our colleges to underpin the robust technical education system our region requires.

We know the West Midlands has some deeply entrenched skills issues to tackle. But with new doors opened by devolution, our shared ambition for the region along with local authority partners, alongside employers, universities and training providers, and an FE sector that is up for this challenge, we know we are prepared to grasp this opportunity with both hands.

 

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