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Joining the dots for a prosperous future

People are fundamental to any commercial success, and helping join the very best talent with employers across the region’s northernmost county is Connect Northumberland. Harnessing significant industry experience, it is working to create a vibrant employer community, wherein organisations’ voices are amplified, greater collaboration is nurtured, new leaders are developed and high-level staff are attracted and retained. Here, Steven Hugill chats to chair Brian Palmer, to learn more about the pioneering endeavour.

“I’m an entrepreneur, so I’m used to joining the dots and understanding when there is a time and a place to do something.

“And this felt like a time and a place.”

As founder of Blyth-based robotics firm Tharsus Group, Brian Palmer knows all about technology’s inherent value in delivering next-generation change.

He also knows, though, that such automation is only one chapter in a much wider transformation narrative.

Another is a cohesive commercial environment, wherein public and private organisations, education providers and the third sector readily coalesce.

Enter Connect Northumberland, the employment-focused, place-based venture, led by chair Brian, which is helping create a vibrant, sustainable employer community and increase prosperity across the region’s northernmost county.

Supporting employers to access skilled personnel for existing endeavours, it is also building frameworks to mould talent – be that homegrown staff or those from farther afield – across multiple rungs of tomorrow’s career ladder.

Furthermore, its blueprint includes a mission to return many of the county’s 10,000 economically inactive people back to employment.

Brian says: “The anticipated arrival of Britishvolt to Cambois shone a light on the brownfield assets of Northumberland, and the associated employment opportunities.

“And with that, alongside changes at local authority level, it became clear there was a real opportunity to unite people and business, to create a larger and more capable workforce, one that could grow by as much as ten per cent over the next decade.”

From those early days, Connect Northumberland now counts funding support from the Royal Academy of Engineering alongside partnerships with Newcastle Business School at Northumbria University; University of Sunderland; Northumberland County Council; North East Times; Northumberland College; talent consultancy Opportunity Global; and John D Leighton Training.

Central to its draw is a unique model that replaces the prosaic with the proactive through granular research – carried out by members of Newcastle Business School – which marks potential change against the county’s commercial complexities.

Brian, who received an OBE for services to manufacturing and skills in the New Year’s Honours List, says: “There isn’t a general understanding of the challenges facing Northumberland compared to, say, County Durham, which, despite being another rural county, has a very different economic make-up.

“Northumberland needs its own place-based solution, and by generating data to create subtleties, we’re ensuring it has such.

“Essentially, we’re using Northumberland’s difference to make a difference, adopting a sector agnostic approach that is focused on providing fresh futures for existing and future employers.”

He adds: “Our initial research identified a number of challenges, not least that the population of 25 to 50-year-olds has dropped by 20 per cent in Northumberland over the last 20 years.

“It also showed an insular element to business, given the county’s geographic spread, and that it doesn’t have enough employers of sufficient size, or have a big enough critical mass of one sector – like Sunderland has with the automotive industry, for example – to properly engage with the outside world.

“However, by creating a community, we’re giving employers a much louder voice.”


  • Pictured, from left to right, are Connect Northumberland steering group members Ian Ritchey, Audrey Kingham, Caroline Theobald and Brian Palmer


And that audibility, says Brian – who is supported at Connect Northumberland by steering group members Audrey Kingham, Caroline Theobald and Ian Ritchey – is increasing openness, which itself is redefining attitudes towards change.

He says: “We’re seeing a real impact around apprenticeships.

“Lots of companies have histories of recruiting apprentices and trainees, but some have never done so.

“But by putting them in front of other businesses that have well-established training programmes, like Egger and AkzoNobel, they are able to understand the practicalities and the powerful benefits.

“We’re also breaking down geographic barriers by allowing people, who may have spent a long time at one business, to gain a bigger picture.

“Our leadership training cohort, for example, is spread across nearly 20 organisations, with each session taking place at a different employers’ site.

“That means everyone involved will gain a much better understanding of the county, but also how different businesses work.

“We’ve already got a waiting list for our executive mini-MBA course, and our essential management course, for people coming into supervisory roles, is very popular too.”

And by equipping firms and individuals with the tools for meaningful progress, Brian says Connect Northumberland is ready to help drive a new industrial revolution across the county, wherein headline renewables developments continue to be matched by progress across further sectors including healthcare, advanced manufacturing, agriculture and tourism.

He says: “Northumberland has a real opportunity for a post-coal economy.

“The flywheel is already moving when it comes to clean energy, with investments like subsea cable maker JDR’s factory at Cambois and further activity at Port of Blyth.

“And a lot of the skills needed for that sector are transferable; if you took a battery plant or offshore wind engineer, for example, around 90 per cent of their skills would be the same as those needed to work in automotive or robotics.

“The crucial thing, though, is enabling that crossover to happen not just across renewables, but across all sectors, and that is what Connect Northumberland has been established to deliver.”

He adds: “We’re adopting a measured approach, based on data and analytics, that will be refreshed annually to keep pace with change.

“Ultimately, we’re joining the dots to build something for the long-term that will bring opportunity for Northumberland and its employers and people.”


March 6, 2024

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