Life in Politics column with Coun Susan Hinchcliffe: Our economy needs more digital skills

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Whatever the next year holds for Britain and its relationship with the European Union, the world of work is changing rapidly.

The fact that jobs which have existed for decades are now becoming automated is hardly news anymore.

What hasn’t been discussed enough though is whether our modern and increasingly devolved economy is being served by our current centralised and frankly analogue skills system.

Research recently published by the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, which I chair, shows that 430,000 jobs in this region – representing some 34 per cent of the current Leeds City Region labour market – will no longer exist in 20 years’ time. We can no longer ignore this and must prepare by developing a skills system that enables people to move into roles that are in demand.

In our region digital roles are forecast to grow 10 times faster than non-digital roles. Indeed 4/10 of the most in-demand roles in our economy already are digital. And it’s not just technical roles like scrum masters or DevOp engineers which are increasingly sought after. Nowadays formerly analogue industries like finance, healthcare and manufacturing are all crying out for people with digital skills. It should be a no-brainer: our economy needs more digital skills, and people with digital skills have amazing opportunities for a fulfilling, prosperous career. However, like many regions, we are grappling with a digital skills gap. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them is the fact that the current system isn’t set up to meet the needs of businesses and the economy.

This situation is particularly acute in further education (FE), where sustained funding cuts mean many colleges are incentivised to offer the courses that keep the lights on, not those which keep our economy growing.

As a region we’ve developed strong partnerships with our FE sector and in 2017 we signed the country’s first delivery agreements with our local colleges, setting out the actions they would undertake to meet the local enterprise partnership’s (LEP) and Combined Authority’s ambitions around employment and skills. Through close partnership working, we’ve seen positive results. In 2017 34 per cent of working age people were recorded as qualified at level 4 and above, which was a three per cent improvement on the previous five year period of no improvements.

Our progress, however, is at risk, as participation in FE is falling particularly among adults. A decrease of 31 per cent of adults was recorded in our latest City Region labour market report.

This has particularly serious implications for regions like ours where vocational training remains a route to a great career and quality of life for many. This is why we in Leeds City Region have set up a new Future-Ready Skills Commission. Bringing together leading figures from business, education, government, research bodies – and the young people who represent the future of our workforce – the Commission will focus on how devolution of funding and decision-making to local areas can better meet local skills needs – particularly in terms of vocational training, careers and lifelong learning.

Now more than ever we need to ensure that the lifeblood of our economy – our people – is equipped with the tools to keep our economy at the forefront of global competitiveness.

Coun Susan Hinchcliffe is Chair of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority and Leader of Bradford Council.