On Wednesday 20th September our members, including Sandy Lindsay MBE, Chair of the NWBLT Skills Taskforce, met at the new Alstom facility in Widnes. The group was given a tour of the £21 million technology rail hub where Pendolino trains are currently being repainted to ensure their longevity. The facility has a real emphasis on skills and training with apprentices gaining valuable STEM skills alongside other locally employed people.
Following the fantastic tour we entered into a wide-ranging discussion on skills. Present at the discussion was Martin Howlett of the Youth Federation; Martin’s background illustrates his passion for improving the circumstances and chances of young people. Previously working as a Design and Technology teacher, Martin now works with the Youth Federation to help vulnerable young people through educational programmes. He provided a valuable contribution to the skills discussion giving valuable insights into the problems facing young people. Martin outlined three core problems that are holding back young people in the North West and as a result causing detrimental skills gaps for the region’s employers.
- There are very few teachers with industrial experience themselves, they therefore lack insights and are not as able to inspire young people as those with industrial experience.
- There is a lack of a relationship between schools and business. The loss of careers capabilities in schools and the reduction of teachers without their own industrial experience do much to exasperate the lack of interface between young people and business.
- There are also clear communication issues, often when pupils are given career insights they are given differing –often-conflicting – advice from teachers, parents and other adults. It is necessary to create a coherent message about skills to young people.
One of the overarching issues laid out by Martin was the issue of communication. Both between businesses and schools but also between young people, teachers, youth club organisers and parents. Young people rely on the adults in their lives to provide constant advice; this is certainly the case in regards to advice on skills and careers. The only way adults will be “in the know” around the skills demanded by the modern economy is if businesses tell them. There was a consensus in the meeting that many teachers lack knowledge themselves about careers in digital engineering, programming and social media. It was agreed, although it is still valuable for business to directly interface with young people they must engage with teachers and parents – the people who will be a constant source of career advice as young people undertake their education.
There was a sense that consistent communication with young people is key to plugging the North West’s skills gap. There is a long way to go. However, Mike Hulme of Alstom pointed out, that there has already been serious and practical progress made. He said, “Alstom are on this site [Widnes] because there are available skills in the North West.” There is work to be done, but if the region is able to attract such fantastic business investments because business sees the region as already having good skill availability then we can assume we are on the right track.