Businesses and education providers need to act fast as city region skills shortage worsens

Liverpool & Sefton Chambers of Commerce business breakfast brings businesses, schools and colleges together to discuss how preparing young people for the workplace and how firms are not investing in training. Tony McDonough reports.

Heather Duggan headteacher at Archbishop Blanch, speaks at the Liverpool & Sefton Chambers business breakfast
Heather Duggan headteacher at Archbishop Blanch, speaks at the Liverpool & Sefton Chambers business breakfast

Businesses and education providers will have to work more closely together to combat the chronic skills shortage across the Liverpool city region.

That was the clear message from the latest Liverpool & Sefton Chambers of Commerce business breakfast.

Held at Merseytravel’s headquarters at Mann Island in the city centre, the event saw the chamber deliver its latest quarterly economic survey.

Christian Spence, head of research and policy at Greater Manchester Chamber, kicked off the session by revealing the latest data uncovered by the study.

Softening confidence

Mr Spence told the audience of dozens of business people that some of the more positive economic data – such as growth in the services sector and consumer spending – was masking weaknesses in other ares of the economy.

“The services sector is driving growth,” he said. “And retail sales are very strong – there is resilience among consumers since the Brexit vote.”

However, he added: “Manufacturing is already in recession… business to business confidence is softening.

“And while a weaker pound may help exporters in a very short-term window, history shows us that in the long term is does not help. The flip side of a weak pound is that import prices will rise.”

Christian Spence addresses the audience at the chamber event
Christian Spence addresses the audience at the chamber event

More training needed

Mr Spence then moved on the main topic of the session – the shortage of skills across the city region.

He added: “Across the UK we have full employment and so the pool of skills is getting smaller.

“What we are being told is that around half of firms in the region are looking to recruit but that 90% of them are having difficulty doing so.

“This is a huge challenge and it has been getting worse for the past 30 years. How do we get businesses to start investing in training their staff rather than just importing skilled labour?

“This is at the heart of the British productivity disease. It is not new, it is not post-recession.”

Social issues

Joining Mr Spence on the panel to discuss the issue was Heather Duggan, headteacher at Archbishop Blanch in Liverpool; Angela Cox, deputy principal of Liverpool Community College; Tim Nichol from Liverpool John Moores University; Andrew Dwerryhouse of Wild Thang; and Peter Radcliffe representing the Institute of Directors.

Both Ms Duggan and Ms Cox said they were working with young people to develop the necessary skills but were being constrained by a constantly-changing Government education policy that was too prescriptive and demanded too many “hard outcomes”.

Ms Duggan said: “We are engaging with businesses. We had a business breakfast at the school a few weeks ago where we had seven businesses attending and they are going to mentor some of our young people.”

And both she and Ms Cox also agreed that schools and colleges were having to deal with the wider social challenges of too many young people who are disadvantaged from an early age.

Ms Duggan explained: “We are trying to teach some young people who, when they first arrive in the school, don’t even know how to use a knife and fork.

“So if we get those young people to a point where they leave us with qualifications then that is a huge achievement.”

Ms Cox added: “There are complex societal issues that are much wider than what is happening in just schools and colleges.”

Work ethic

A number of employers in the audience talked about the need for young people to be better prepared for the workplace in terms of softer skills, IT knowledge and a work ethic, which one audience member said was lacking in too many that came to her.

Mr Radcliffe put forward the view that, in recent years, the Government had put too much focus in pushing people towards higher education.

“It is very important for schools to tell young people about the wide variety of alternatives – not just university,” he said.

Jenny Stewart, chief executive of Liverpool & Sefton Chambers of Commerce
Jenny Stewart, chief executive of Liverpool & Sefton Chambers of Commerce

A changing world

Liverpool and Sefton Chambers chief executive, Jenny Stewart, summed up the session by saying: “I have been at the chamber now for 10 years and we have been having this conversation about the shortage of skills for the whole of that time – and it was probably being talked about 10 years before that.

“Education is like a huge tanker in the middle of the Mersey that we have to turn around. We keep churning out young people preparing them for jobs that will not exist in 2030.

“And by 2035 50% of the workforce will be over 50 and so we also have to think about how we go about life-long learning.”

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