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11 Aug

11 August 2015

From the skills challenge to the WMCA: business services professionals debate factors affecting growth

Leading business services professionals in Coventry & Warwickshire came together to discuss and debate the sub-regional economy and the factors affecting its growth. This report is a brief summary of the debate.

The West Midlands Combined Authority

There is an acceptance that pooling resources will support the growth of the local economy and the creation of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) will give Coventry access to existing funding streams.

The WMCA does give cause for concern. Growth in Warwickshire is likely to be constrained as the WMCA will pull the available funding into the urban areas and geographically it is not seen as making sense. Coventry and Warwickshire are a cohesive unit; according to the Coventry & Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership over 80% of those who work in Coventry and Warwickshire live in Coventry and Warwickshire. There are also a number of organisations already reflecting this geography; Coventry & Warwickshire First, Coventry & Warwickshire Chamber of Commerce, the Champions, the LEP, BBC Coventry & Warwickshire. The view is that the city of Coventry and the county of Warwickshire should collaborate.

The boundaries between local authorities are meaningless to business, which instead of demarcations wants collaboration and cohesion. This is increasingly the case, forced in part by Government policy and also the attitude of new generations.

The JLR phenomenon and conundrum

Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) is an incredible success story, driving innovation and investment into the region. Valuable skills have been developed in the area as a result of its presence and engineering companies have grown on the back of its success. It has played a part in initiatives such as the Warwick Manufacturing Group, which have put Coventry and Warwickshire firmly on the Global map. JLR also runs a number of initiatives through which both the company and employees give something back to the local community.

Coventry & Warwickshire needs to go on capitalising on the positive and beneficial influence of JLR.

It also, however, presents a number of challenges that should not be ignored.   As well as the obvious regional risk of over reliance on one business, the JLR phenomenon is affecting the availability of skills and access to housing. As a successful global business JLR is ‘hoovering up’ the skills in the region offering excellent career opportunities and salary and benefits packages with which smaller companies struggle to compete. House prices have also increased in the area and the private rental sector is saturated, resulting in an unbalanced housing market.

These issues cannot detract for the overwhelmingly positive impact of JLR but it would be a mistake to ignore them and not seek remedies.

The skills challenge

Rugby is home to many logistics businesses and so there are plenty of warehouse and related jobs in the region. At the other end of the spectrum are high-level engineering roles but there is an absence of mid-tier jobs, a gap that needs to be filled if there is to be a balanced workforce.

Apprenticeships are an effective solution to the shortage of skills and businesses feel they need to invest in them, despite the risk of young people leaving quickly and so not providing a return on the investment.

More particularly the lack of work readiness amongst young people is perceived to be an issue. Most businesses feel they have been ‘burnt’ in one way or another by inexperienced young people and have adopted strategies to make sure they take on only the best. These include assessing them on their attitude ahead of their skills, getting existing apprentices and young people to interview the next cohort of recruits and only selecting those who have experience beyond the school environment.

A relationship between businesses and schools could help to address this problem. Schools focus on delivering good exam results rather than producing work ready young people. Closer collaboration between the two could give greater prominence to and support with the life and softer skills young people appear to lack.

The older workforce presents another solution to this problem. Traditionally young people were apprenticed to a specific individual who coached them on the working world as well as the craft skill itself; they helped the young person gain the softer skills they currently lack. With the lifting of compulsory retirement there are now older people in the workforce. These individuals could be the mentors the young people need.

The power of the universities

The University of Warwick and Coventry University are both extremely successful, raising the profile of the region globally, creating jobs locally, attracting often extremely wealthy international students (there are more than 48 nationalities resident in Coventry University’s Study Inn) and bringing plenty of student pounds into the region, in particular to Coventry, Kenilworth and Royal Leamington Spa. These pounds and global links need to be welcomed, understood and capitalised upon.

The risk of ghost towns

Coventry city centre is being improved. The renovation around the Council House, the Friargate development and the new access to the railway station are all seen as positive.

However there is concern that towns in the region, including Coventry, could become ghost towns – Coventry is already seen as a ghost town in the evenings – if there is a not a commitment to ensure a positive balance of office, residential and leisure facilities in the centres. Office facilities in particular are seen as important to capture the lunchtime pound and an appealing nighttime economy is needed to attract workers at the end of the day and make the centres a destination for additional visitors.

Promoting Coventry and Warwickshire

There is a consensus that the sub-region promotes itself better to the outside world than has been the case in recent decades. Coventry Champions proactively promotes Coventry and Warwickshire to London and the rest of the country and is making connections with successful businesspeople who have an emotional connection with the region. There is already awareness of, for example, Silicon Spa but a perception that few know the whole Coventry story.

Coventry and Warwickshire and all they have to offer is perhaps better known and understood in Europe than other parts of the UK.

More is demanded of the region’s politicians. They need to be lobbied and then held to account. In addition the big institutions, for example the universities, should be lobbied to buy their products and services locally.

Finally, there is a strong belief that Coventry and Warwickshire needs a strong leader or cohort of leaders to make sure all take responsibility for improving the city and tendering for major high profile projects.