Young people hold key to Southport’s transformation
Backing Southport BID’s vision for a more diverse economy, Southport College CEO Michelle Brabner says it is essential young people be persuaded to stay and pursue a career. Tony McDonough reports
Convincing young people they can aspire to a rewarding career without leaving Southport will be a critical element in transforming the town’s economy.
That’s the view of Michelle Brabner, chief executive and principal of Southport College, who says “youth flight”, where young people from Southport believe they have to go elsewhere to study and work, is a key issue that needs to be addressed.
“There is a perception among many young people locally that paths to rewarding, high skilled, and well paid jobs inevitably lead out of Southport,” said Michelle who took over the running of the college early this year, just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That isn’t necessarily true. There are real opportunities in and around Southport so I think we have a responsibility to challenge that perception. If you look at our visitor economy, young people will often see jobs in that sector as being something they do while they are studying and before they go on to do something else.
“But we have seen in the past few weeks how plans for new attractions and facilities here will help transform the visitor economy into a 365-days-a-year sector that will offer real career opportunities.”
Southport College currently has around 3,500 students on its books. It is split into two distinct facilities. In January 2018, following a Government review of post-16 education, Southport College merged with King George V College, which primarily offered A-level courses.
Despite now being part of a single organisation, both colleges have kept their distinctive identities for their student groups. Michelle believes it is important to offer a strong mix of both academically-focused courses such as A Levels, and vocational courses and and skills courses alongside apprenticeships.
The college offers a wide range of vocational courses. Skills covering health and social care sector is a big part of its offer as is construction and engineering, hospitality, hair and beauty, digital and creative arts and courses such as counselling.
Michelle says the college is fully behind a new vision being driven by the Southport Town Deal board, which is seeking £50m from the Government’s Town Deals fund, and by Southport BID which believes that, after the town’s visitor economy was hit so badly by COVID-19, the area needs to diversify its economy.
No economic transformation plan can succeed without investment in skills and an adaptable workforce. Michelle is under no illusions about the central role Southport College can play in that process and says it is ready and willing to be part of that change.
She identifies four areas with great potential: health and social care; digital and the creative arts; visitor economy and hospitality; and skills that will be required due to the major investment coming from Government for green energy and decarbonisation.
“We are talking a lot at the moment in the college about future skills,” explained Michelle, who joined from Runshaw College in Leyland. “And we need to offer those right her in Southport. We need to get to a point where we offer them what they need here, at the town’s college.
“In terms of health and social care we see that as being quite a broad offer. This means not just care sector skills but focusing on other areas such as radiology and dentistry. Mental health and wellbeing is also becoming more important. And that actually goes back to Southport’s original selling point as a spa town and a place where people came improve their health.
“The pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns has also emphasised how dependent we are now on technology. Digital skills isn’t just about IT. Most companies now have a level of digital dependence and having a range of skills around digital technologies is so important. And the college has always traditionally offered a great range of arts courses. We already have something here we can really build on.
“Diversifying Southport economy is hugely important but hospitality and the visitor economy will still be a dominant sector in this town and we have to offer the right skills that will convince young people they can build fulfilling careers in the industry.
“In terms of green energy and new green technologies I think we can aspire to become a hub. And there are professional firms moving coming into the town that also offer excellent carrier opportunities. Parents will want to see that young people have something they can aspire to.”
Part of the Town Deal Board’s plans include business hubs around the the town and Michelle believes these will provide the space for businesses to set up in, or relocate to, the town and provide high-skill jobs and opportunities.
“She added: “You have two types of hub. The flexible office spaces that can offer large firms an alternative to large and expensive city centre offices and the hubs that target digital and creative businesses. We have seen from the phenomenal growth of Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle how creating a hub of collaboration can reap huge rewards.
“There is no reason Southport cannot create those kind of spaces and see them flourish. This is a beautiful town with some amazing buildings, lower costs and great transport links. There are genuinely exciting possibilities here and, with the right leadership, we can transform this town for decades to come.”