TUC rises to the skills challenges facing the West Midlands

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The West Midlands has a proud history. The birthplace of the industrial revolution and Shakespeare, the region has rich cultural, industrial and academic assets. Yet, despite this history and the strengths within the region, the West Midlands faces significant challenges in the years to come if the region is to punch its weight economically.

Too many years of underinvestment in both plant, machinery and, crucially, people has meant that the regional economy has failed to reach its full potential.

To be fair the scale of the challenge is something that the West Midlands Combined Authority has recognised. All partners involved with the WMCA realise there is a great deal of heavy lifting is required just to reach the national average.

To get an idea of the problem, look at these facts taken from the WMCA’s Strategic Economic Plan:

  • People with no qualifications: The WMCA will need to reduce the number of people with no qualifications by 134,418 just to reach the national average of 8.6%
  • NVQ4+: An additional increase of 187,079 people with NVQ4+ qualifications is needed to get the WMCA to the national rate of 35.7% from the present low rate of 28.5%.
  • Employment rate: The WMCA’s employment rate of 68.2% which lags behind the national average of 73.9%, a shortfall of around 143,000 people in the workforce.
  • NEETs: The overall WMCA NEET rate is 5.8%, significantly higher than the national average of 4.7% meaning that a reduction of 1,330 is needed just to catch up with the average.

In response, the WMCA has set goals to deliver 500,000 new jobs, 20,000 additional businesses and at least 156,000 more people with level 4 qualifications or above.

And such a target is needed to concentrate minds. For it is clear that the region’s poor skills base and underperforming economy is significantly contributing to poorer living standards. Without high quality skills, we will simply not create the good jobs that we need to see. Indeed, over the last 6 years some 28% of jobs created in the region have been temporary, insecure jobs. An economy built on this basis is an economy built on sand – and poverty. For we know that householders in the West Midlands are getting a poorer deal than other regions. Average household income in the West Midlands, after housing costs, is just £370, well below the £459 average in the South East, and the national average of £402.

Quite simply, too many of the jobs in the West Midlands are poorly paid and insecure. We need to see a radically different approach of investment in infrastructure, training and innovative use of procurement to deliver decent jobs.

And crucially we need to see far smarter social interventions to provide greater equality of opportunity to tackle deprivation and inequality that has been entrenched in too many of our communities for too long.

That is the challenge of devolution. If we, as a region, haven’t shifted these figures in the years to come and given a real boost to household income for all our citizens then devolution will have failed.

The TUC has a seat on the Board of the WMCA. We will use this seat to continually bang the drum for decent jobs and opportunity. Let us invest in skills, invest in people and let us see our great region not just catch up to the national average, but become a world class economy with world class opportunities and skills for all our communities.

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Lee Barron

Lee Barron is Regional Secretary at TUC Midlands based in Birmingham and served the postal and telecom workers Union, the CWU, before joining the TUC in 2014.

Promoting workplace learning and skills has been an important part of Lee’s role and in this blog he talks about the challenges facing the West Midlands and how TUC Midlands aims to support the skills agenda to bring better jobs to the area.