Business & Economy
Vision 2031: Engineering a regional brain gain
September 18, 2023
Creating a skills pathway for long-term success
Welcome to the latest instalment of VISION 2031, the campaign led by North East Times Magazine that sets a blueprint for how our region can stand at the vanguard of global industrial and economic progress across the next ten years.
Here, in the fourth high-level roundtable event of the series, individuals from a number of leading organisations, as well as those from partner Northstar Ventures and sponsors Northern Accelerator, EY, Jackson Hogg, Lloyds Banking Group and Weightmans, look at the region’s future through the prism of skills, assessing existing pathways and highlighting the action needed to boost both graduate retention and the attraction of domestic and international talent.
The panel included:
Professor Carrie Ambler – Chief scientific officer, LightOx
Peter Thomas – Chief marketing officer, Northumbria University
Alasdair Greig – Director, Northstar Ventures
Giselle Stewart – Studio director, Creative Assembly North
John Smith – Director of partnerships, Royal Grammar School Newcastle
Gary Chapman – Head of North East region and director – industrials and infrastructure, Lloyds Banking Group
Alison Gwynn – Chief executive, North East Screen
Richard Hogg – Founder and chief executive, Jackson Hogg
Sharon Grant – Director, North East Institute of Technology
Mike Scoular – Newcastle office managing partner, EY
Dr Arnab Basu – Co-founder and chief executive, Kromek
Karen Crowe – Director and head of environmental, social and governance, Corstorphine & Wright
Paul Wigham – Partner, Weightmans
Dr Tim Hammond – Director of commercialisation and economic development, Durham University, Project lead, Northern Accelerator
Dr Fozia Saleem – Chief executive, Magnitude Biosciences
John Duns (chair) – Director, North East Times Magazine
With mortar leaching between bricks in severe need of spirit level intervention, Boris Johnson gave his knee-high creation one last thump with the butt of a trowel handle.
Never one to decline an opportunity for a head-turning soundbite, here he was in late 2020, announcing funding for retraining he said would build a bridge between the “pointless, nonsensical gulf” of university and vocational education.
In many ways, it was just another chapter in the Westminster Photo Opportunities 101 playbook.
Beyond the surface, though, lay something deeper.
The debate around skills, and associated programme and policy tinkering, has existed for perpetuity.
Yet the sight and sound of the country’s 55th Prime Minister acknowledging the disconnect between education – and therefore industry’s ability to suitably replenish talent lines – during the white hot heat of pandemic Britain was incredibly telling.
For it pointed to a realisation that in the new post-COVID-19 era of technological radicality and rapidly shifting sectors, the revisions of the past must be replaced by systemic change if the UK is serious about remaining globally competitive.
SO, WHAT DOES THE SKILLS LANDSCAPE LOOK LIKE TODAY?
Well, for all the promises made during Johnson’s brush with masonry, and the more recent pledges of present Downing Street incumbent Rishi Sunak, including his mission to teach maths to all until 18, Sharon Grant, director at North East Institute of Technology (NEIoT), said education and industry remain somewhat uncomfortable bedfellows.
She said: “There are a lot of language barriers; they don’t totally understand each other.
“To make change in education curriculum, it can sometimes feel like turning a tanker, while business is more like a speedboat – and the two often struggle to understand how the timeframes don’t marry.
“However, we are making progress; more people are now invested in the dialogue.”
Sharon received support from Dr Arnab Basu, co-founder and chief executive of Sedgefield-based radiation detection kit maker Kromek, who advocated the creation of a “smoother interface” between academia and industry.
Led by the region’s universities, Dr Basu said it would knit the realms of workplace and education more tightly together, satisfying present-day industry demands while preparing the learning landscape for the roles of tomorrow.
He said: “Skills requirements are evolving all the time – jobs are being created today that didn’t exist five years back.
“That makes it very challenging for further education and the schools sector, but the universities are well-equipped to keep up.”
Alison Gwynn, chief executive at North East Screen, which develops and champions the region as a film and television production hub, cautioned of the need to close a gap between training provision and sector reality.
Referencing the broadcast sector, she said: “Further and higher education providers put on courses that young people want to go on.
“And that means we have a phenomenal number of graduates who aspire to be Hollywood directors and producers.
“But many of the jobs are not creative roles, with the majority being freelance – and that can be a challenge.”
Acknowledging notable pockets of progress, Dr Tim Hammond, director of commercialisation and economic development at Durham University, admitted “a lot more needs to be done, through a lot more joined-up work”.
Using the EU-funded Intensive Industrial Innovation Programme (IIIP) as reference, which has seen Durham, Newcastle, Northumbria and Teesside universities embed PhD research students into SMEs to help develop new products and services, he said: “Understanding what businesses require is a key – and ongoing – challenge.
“IIIP has been incredibly successful, with something like 100 students going through the programme, and Procter & Gamble is managing another scheme wherein 30 PhD students from Durham, Newcastle and Northumbria universities are being trained, not for the company’s benefit, but that of the life sciences sector.”
“These kind of programmes work very well, and we need to look at how they can be built upon,” added Dr Hammond, who is also lead of the Northern Accelerator programme that helps turns research into real-world applications.
Peter Thomas, chief marketing officer at Northumbria University, said local and national administrators must be drawn further into the conversation.
He added: “It’s about a supply and demand balance.
“On the demand side, we need to ask what the priority skills and industries are, and what it is the North East is going to be famous for.
“But no organisation can do it alone – there needs to be a tripartite conversation between education, industry and Government about demand, so we can then fix the supply side.
“Supply is all about unlocking potential further downstream, but the North East’s participation in higher education is the lowest in the country.
“The challenge we face is raising aspirations in communities across the region, to get more on the supply side, who we can then shape and mould as we go forward.”
A FUNDAMENTAL CHAPTER IN ANY SKILLS DEBATE IS EARLY STAGE LEARNING. BUT IS THE REGION ENGAGING SUFFICIENTLY WITH THE WORKERS OF TOMORROW TO SET CAREER SIGHTS FROM A YOUNG AGE?
Not too long ago, careers advice for many consisted of a brief sit-down with a teacher or tutor during the last chapters of secondary school life and a phalanx of glossy further education brochures signposting a route towards university.
Thankfully, today’s landscape is much more expansive.
The resurgence of vocational training has begun to reset the dial, with increasing numbers of students pursuing passions that equally fulfil industry skills wishes.
But, said panel members, the environment – certainly at the younger end of the educational spectrum – remains challenging, with some subconscious ideologies blinkering pupils’ career vision.
Using the construction sector as a case study, Karen Crowe, director and head of environmental, social and governance at Darlington and Newcastle-based architectural practice Corstorphine & Wright, said: “Selling the industry to young people is really difficult because of out-of-date perceptions.
“At one end, you have architecture; that immediately makes people think of years at university, which many see as being out of their grasp.
“And at the other, you’ve got images of someone stuck out in the cold trying to lay bricks.
“But neither are accurate.
“The biggest groups of people who hold those perceptions, beyond students and their families, are teachers and those in the careers field, who don’t know where industry is going.
“And it’s vital we remove such stereotypes to widen participation.”
Dr Basu added: “You capture or lose a young person’s imagination at the very early stages of school.
“Training teachers is where we need to start.”
Sharon, who oversees NEIoT’s partnering with colleges, higher education and anchor businesses Esh Group and Nissan to deliver employer-focused, practical learning across the advanced manufacturing, engineering, construction and digital sectors, agreed.
She added: “If parents, carers, teachers and careers advisors don’t know what is on their doorstep, then we’ve no chance of getting young people to understand the breadth of roles out there for them.
“It has to start at primary level, and for STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) in particular, there must be regular touchpoints to embed the message – it can’t be done through wow factor, one-off events.”
John Smith, director of partnerships at Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School, took the discussion on, emphasising how early years ignorance can leave youngsters unsighted to opportunities.
He said: “From working with various local businesses and leaders across numerous sectors and schools, we know many young people are not aware of the pathways out there.
“So we’re tackling it alongside industry, with things like robotics events and debate clubs, to help teenagers through the right doors at the right time.”
EARLY YEARS ENCOURAGEMENT IS JUST ONE PART OF THE SKILLS CONUNDRUM, WITH THE REGION FACING A CONTINUED BATTLE TO RETAIN HIGH-ACHIEVING INDIVIDUALS. HOW CAN THE NORTH EAST BETTER PRESERVE ITS TALENT POOL?
According to a recent study piloted by engineering and design firm Atkins alongside the Northern Powerhouse Partnership think tank, four in ten 16 to 21-year-olds expect to leave the North in search of better employment prospects.
Furthermore, when refined purely to 16 to 18-year-olds, the figure rises to more than half.
Yet for all its headline-grabbing numbers, the research – its North East insight made up of contributions from individuals across Teesside, alongside peers in Liverpool, the M6 corridor and West Yorkshire – came as nothing new.
Talent has been disappearing down the region’s metaphorical brain drain, to cities or the medical sector innovation ‘golden triangle’ of Cambridge, London and Oxford for a number of years, attracted by the lure of broader employment opportunities and better pay grades.
But, said Richard Hogg, founder and chief executive at STEM-focused specialist recruitment and outsourced talent services partner Jackson Hogg, great scope exists to not only refill the region’s pool, but keep it topped up.
Recalling his experiences on a graduate retention programme rolled out by former regional development agency One North East, Richard called for the proliferation of similar projects, saying they would help magnetise talent to employers and, ultimately, the region.
He said: “The ‘Keeping the Best’ scheme rotated high-achieving graduates around local SMEs and different companies, with the idea that, after four years and a breadth of experience later, they would stay in the region.
“And it certainly worked for me.”
“I don’t run a STEM business per se, but I think the sector has benefitted from me staying within it during that period of my life,” added the Newcastle University mechanical engineering graduate, whose Newcastle and Teesside-based business helps firms recruit staff for temporary posts through to executive-level positions.
Professor Carrie Ambler, chief scientific officer at Newcastle-based LightOx, which is developing light-activated chemotherapy treatment for early-stage mouth cancers, concurred.
She said: “We need to get people out of their insular system and integrate them more into the community.”
“Incentivising them to remain in the region beyond the burst of university time, be it through an internship or work with another company, takes them beyond the study bubble and makes them much more likely to stay,” added Prof Ambler, who also teaches in Durham University’s department of biosciences.
She was backed by Giselle Stewart, studio director at Newcastle-based video games maker Creative Assembly North, who championed the value of internships in helping students “bed into” the region.
Highlighting the Skills Investment Fund, which provided a 50 per cent subsidy towards graduate interns for up to a year across the games, visual effects, animation, film and television sectors, she said: “We do need to look at how we attract and retain people.
“The Skills Investment Fund was a successful model; larger companies doubled their numbers, there was 80 per cent retention and those who weren’t retained got jobs elsewhere in the sector.
“Such programmes are a great way to help build careers while bedding into a place.”
And Mike Scoular, Newcastle office managing partner at professional services firm EY, and Paul Wigham, partner at Newcastle-based law firm Weightmans, used company-specific examples to underline the intrinsic link between opening career doors at an early age and greater permanency within a region.
Mike talked about EY’s partnership with Northumbria University on a three-year Chartered management degree apprenticeship, which he said “works really well” in nurturing “problem-solvers and storytellers” of the future, with Paul spotlighting Weightmans’ solicitor apprenticeship scheme.
Paul added: “People on the programme are predominantly local, with familial connections to the North East, and come with varied backgrounds that help tackle the socio-economic issues around law.
“And they don’t leave.”
WHAT ABOUT TALENT ATTRACTION? IS THE NORTH EAST DOING ENOUGH TO DRAW PEOPLE FROM OTHER PARTS OF THE UK – AND THE WORLD – TO STRENGTHEN ITS SKILLS BASE?
For the North East to truly build the bank of skilled workers it needs to maximise its potential, Dr Basu said retention programmes must be matched by similar focus on attracting talent from beyond its boundaries.
To do so, the Kromek boss – whose company supplements its NETPark headquarters with bases in Pennsylvania and California – said the region must take a “20-year strategic view”.
Allowing the North East to be more clearly sighted against global competition, he said such a blueprint would also deliver much-needed clarity amid a fitful national political scene.
He said: “We’re not going to grow if we don’t have an active way of expanding our workforce, whether it is through internal migration or international immigration.
“Look at the big hubs that have emerged, like California, and those that are now emerging; they haven’t done so through local population upskilling alone.
“You do it by bringing in job creators and retaining them.
“And the primary way to keep people is to have good, well-paid jobs and a strong career pathway; people don’t move to a region because of one good job, they need to see other roles and scope for progression.
“We think we’re competing with Yorkshire and London, but we need to compete globally.”
He added: “Our expectations are often built on five-year political cycles, which means our strategies sit within much shorter phases than can be realised.
“But innovation and skills is like Test cricket; it isn’t T20, it is all about longevity.”
Richard echoed the call for long-term planning, pointing to infrastructure investment like the commitment made to establish the Northumberland-based National Renewable Energy Centre two decades ago, which continues to act as a key conduit in the development of new technologies for the UK’s green revolution.
He said: “It was a very strategic decision to put a key wind test facility in Blyth.
“And if you look at what’s happened at Port of Blyth, and what has rippled out at places like Port of Tyne, with the arrival of Dogger Bank wind farm joint operator Equinor and the jobs being created, you see that strategy has been borne out.”
Alison added: “We must suspend any ideas that we can get things done in a short space of time.
“We need a long-term vision that everyone understands.”
WOULD THE SKILLS MARKET BENEFIT FROM GREATER INDUSTRY COLLABORATION?
Citing the boomtime in regional film and television investment, wherein landmark BBC expansion was recently augmented by plans from production firm Fulwell73 – led by ex-Royal Grammar School Newcastle pupil Leo Pearlman – to build an 8450-job studio on Wearside, Alison called for sector “cross-fertilisation”.
This, she said, would create clusters at the cut and thrust of industry, which would allow sectors to work with greater cohesion while better informing skills needs and demands.
She said: “We are in a massive period of growth – we’ve had the BBC investment and now have Fulwell73’s Crown Works Studios, which will be the largest of its type in Europe.
“My biggest shortage area right now is production accountants but, in three years’ time, it will be construction.
“But when and how do I cluster with those industries? The answer is I don’t.
“We need more genuine collaboration – when you have that, you can achieve far more.”
Dr Fozia Saleem, chief executive at Sedgefield-based Magnitude Biosciences, which provides contract lab services aiding research across a number of life science areas, agreed.
She said: “Different sectors have different problems around attracting and retaining talent.
“It would be nice to have supporting groups to help extend innovation and deliver pivotal moments.”
“It is about sectors coming together and communicating,” added Giselle, who was previously awarded an OBE for services to the games industry.
“We must look at how we grow the region’s historically successful industries while nurturing others around them.”
THE NORTH EAST HAS MANY STRONG CONSTITUENT PARTS BUT, FOR TOO LONG, HAS SUFFERED FROM GEOGRAPHICAL FRAGMENTATION. HOW IMPORTANT IS A UNITED NARRATIVE WHEN SEEKING TO SELL THE REGION TO EXTERNAL TALENT?
From the rise and fall of One North East to local enterprise partnerships, three combined authorities, two mayors, a forthcoming devolution deal for a portion of the region and a number of elected councils, the area’s political landscape is nothing if not complicated.
And, said roundtable members, such an excessive palette makes any attempts to paint a picture of the region for those in outside shires a difficult endeavour.
In its stead, they said the North East must cut through the convolution by telling a story that bounds the area as a single entity, rather than a siloed environment in apparent constant struggle with itself.
“The region has an identity issue; it needs to be solidified,” said Prof Ambler.
“We need to think more about the North East, rather than the places people identify with.”
Karen added: “The focus on education and skills is vital, but the perception of a place and its potential is equally very important.”
Mike introduced another angle, saying the North East must bring an end to inter-regional battles of “councils within ten miles of each other competing for business relocation”.
Alternatively, he called for the identification of fresh areas of industrial focus, which he said would add much greater potency to the region’s message and, ultimately, its reception by talent further afield.
He said: “The North East needs to concentrate on the sectors that physically have to be here – plug and play on the internet, in the post-COVID-19 landscape, means some don’t – but look too at the ones that are going to make the next cog, rather than the ones lubricating existing cogs.”
AND HOW IMPORTANT IS SUCH MESSAGING IN ATTRACTING THE EXTERNAL INVESTMENT THE REGION NEEDS FOR COMMERCIAL GROWTH AND, BY ASSOCIATION, TALENT EXPANSION?
Alongside a fractured geographical picture, the North East, by virtue of centuries’ old introversion, has never truly felt comfortable in extolling its success stories.
But, said Gary Chapman, head of North East region and director – industrials and infrastructure at Lloyds Banking Group, to lure the investment and the talent required to compete on a global stage, the region must shed such reticence.
Spotlighting its place within the renewable energy sphere, using BP’s plans for huge hydrogen production plants on Teesside as a case study, he said: “We need to be totally aligned around what we stand for.
“We can sometimes hide our light under a bushel in the North East, but we need to sell our story unashamedly, because the opportunity – through things like the transition to net-zero and decarbonising of the industrial cluster – is here and now.”
Alasdair Greig, a director at Newcastle-based investment house Northstar Ventures, looked towards next year’s North East mayoral election – which officials say will hand the victor as much as £60 million a year to boost adult education and skills in the north of the region – as a key factor in the need to amplify the promotional volume.
He added: “Funders, who are based in London or abroad, come with a low knowledge base of the region.
“So we therefore need to sell an exciting, comprehensive and united story.
“Manchester has done a fantastic job of selling its story, thanks to Andy Burnham as its mayor.
“We’re not as good at selling our story, but devolution provides an opportunity to bring together an ambitious narrative.”
Gary rejoined the conversation, highlighting the value of such storyboarding in catalysing awareness of businesses and their pioneering potential, and, therefore, their ability to help the region create, retain and attract talent.
He said: “In the South East, there are a lot of people who’ve come out of business and have human and real capital to invest in companies.
“That gives firms life and oxygen to grow to a point where a bank or mainstream funder can get involved.
“The North East doesn’t have an ecosystem on that scale, and it’s therefore important we shine a light with other early-stage investors.
“The quality of university research in this region is outstanding, and it needs to be met with capital; that’s how you get the next Silicon Valley.”
Reiterating the need for a collective voice, Dr Saleem added: “The North East has fantastic potential – but there isn’t enough shouting from the rooftops.
“Our external showcasing is missing; we have lots of internal, self-congratulatory events that are brilliant for morale, but we need to create more publicity outside the region.
“We need to highlight our strengths better and jump on the coattails of things like the rising awareness of Newcastle United, which we can use as conversation starters when seeking to attract and retain people.
“We’re at the crux of the North East going on to do amazing things, and we need to talk more about them.”