Michelle Rainbow is the skills for business manager at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). She joined the partnership in October 2015 after working in a number of public, private and third sector roles. An adopted Geordie, Michelle has lived in the region for over 30 years. Here, she re ects on how the partnership is working to plug the skills gap in our region
Tell me about your role at the LEP…
Being skills for business manager is focused on solving some of the issues with the mismatch of supply and demand when it comes to skills in the region. I work with employers, businesses and sector groups to articulate what their requirements are then support training and education providers to enable them to meet this demand.
Why are skills such an important part of the LEP’s strategy?
Having a higher and better skills level is the way to grow our economy. It’s fundamental to our Strategic Economic Plan (SEP), which is focused on creating 100,000 more and better jobs in the North East. Creating better systems to achieve this is something that the partnership is very interested in.
What do you mean by better systems?
It means all sorts, really, but mainly the systems by which business and educators can work together on skills building. We have some fantastic education assets in the North East, with ten Good or Outstanding Ofsted colleges and four prominent universities. Our primary schools are also the best in the country and some of our secondary schools are producing outstanding results. Yet the North East still has a skills gap where growing local businesses struggle to recruit suitable people.
So we need a better-educated workforce in the region?
Yes, but that’s only part of the solution. We also have to look at the employability of people – their understanding of what the world of work entails. Sometimes, that’s equally as important as having the right qualifications for going into a role.
What do you mean by the ‘employability’?
It’s having the right attitude for work – so, for example, turning up on time, being smart and knowing when to turn your phone off. It’s also about having the ability to problem solve and the understanding of how to work as part of a team, as well as working under your own initiative. These key employability skills are in addition to education qualifications and they are things that employers tell us can be a real barrier for successful recruitment.
Whose responsibility is it to make people more skilled and employable?
It’s everyone’s. Educators, businesses, government, local authorities and the LEP all have a role to play. We’re all part of a jigsaw and because the LEP can take a holistic overview, we can look at the economic and factual data and identify where skills gaps lie in the region, then start the conversation between people in education, businesses and employers to try and fix the problem together.
Currently, where are the skills gaps in the North East?
The SEP has highlighted areas of potential high growth. We call them our Smart Specialisation sectors and they are passenger vehicle manufacturing, subsea and offshore, life sciences and health, and creative digital, software and technology services.
I’ve talked to businesses in advanced manufacturing, engineering, and digital, as well as in health, life sciences, renewables and energy that report problems with recruitment. Some have more acute supply issues than others but we don’t want to get to the point where there are such shortages that it creates bidding wars for employees with the right skills. That’s not healthy for business. What the LEP needs to do is to assess what the demand is and try to put the right supply in place. It is at that point that businesses can really start to grow and so does the North East economy.
Tell me a bit about the initiatives the LEP is involved in to increase skills in the region.
A big focus for the LEP is around STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and showing our young people that by studying one of these subjects at GCSE and A Level, you have a massive opportunity in terms of where your career can take you. A lot of our work is focused on information, advice and guidance in this area and we’re running the national pilot of the Good Career Guidance Benchmarks. As part of this we have been very successful in recruiting local business leaders as local enterprise advisors. They are matched with a school (usually one in the locality of their business) and work with the senior management of schools to develop their careers strategy. We now have around 70 advisors working in 40 schools and they come from big business, SMEs and even a sole trader background.
We’ve also been working closely with our FE colleges to help them build courses in the high growth sectors, while helping to facilitate the links between business who can influence course content and provide work experience opportunities.
We’re also supporting higher education institutions to make sure we retain as many graduates as we can by communicating the opportunities that there are in the region. And we’ve been working with SCHOOLS North East to help retain and attract more teachers – particularly in the STEM subjects.
How do we retain and attract talent?
People are sometimes quite blinkered about the North East and so a big part of the LEP’s work is around raising our image and profile so that people understand the advantages of coming to live and work here. But this goes hand-in-hand with changing the aspirations and ambitions of our young people who are already in the region. We need to stop talking ourselves down. The coal industry, the ship building and some of the heavy engineering and manufacturing plants are gone but there are still a lot of opportunity areas. We need to start to articulate what these are for young people, from a really young age. The LEP has already started to work in primary schools to help instill this thinking, as research has shown that life limiting decisions in terms of careers and aspirations can start from children aged nine years old.
Isn’t it quite controversial to say that a nine-year-old needs to start thinking about their career?
It’s more about showing children at this age what opportunities are out there and how things like engineering, maths and science contribute to different jobs and professions. Obviously, adaptations have to be made to work we do in secondary schools. And we need to work more closely with teachers and parents.
What about older workers? Can they contribute to filling the skills gap?
Absolutely. The LEP has been working with the Department of Work and Pensions to assess how big that cohort is in this area. We feel a lot of jobs could be filled by people in their 30s, 40s and 50s by either offering more flexible working or by building on transferrable skills.
Something I think the UK is bad at is looking at the careers choices for older workers. European countries, such as France and Finland, offer career reviews for workers every ten years. This gives people the opportunity to think about what they are doing now and what they want to be doing long term. For example, you may have a very physical job. Do you still want to doing that into your 60s? Most people aren’t going to retire at 65 these days so we have to start thinking about this.
Do you think the attitude on skills is changing at the required rate?
It is changing and things are getting better. Educators and businesses are listening more. This isn’t going to be a quick fix; it will be generational. But I genuinely think that by creating a system where businesses and education work together more closely, we’ll have a better chance of succeeding.
If you did have a magic wand, though, what changes would you make now?
I would give some of our educators more industry experience. They do a tremendous job but sometimes don’t have the experience in industry that they can translate in a classroom environment for young people. I would also change some of the curriculum to make it more relevant to modern industry. I would bring in ten-year career reviews for workers in their 30s, 40s and 50s plus. A lot of people I speak to say it’s a great idea. Gone are the days where you work for the same employer for life – my own career says that. It would be great to give people the chance to reflect on their career and have the opportunity to speak to a professional.
Finally, what are the future plans for the LEP in its skills agenda?
All the things I’ve mentioned will continue and we are also currently working on updating the SEP to ensure we can deliver and, hopefully, exceed the 100,000 more and better jobs for the region. The North East LEP will also continue to try and influence and lobby for skills funding so we can raise the aspirations and improve opportunities for people that live and work here.