In this blog, Julie Nugent and Clare Hatton explain the West Midlands Combined Authority’s skills and adult learning response to the pandemic.
When Coronavirus hit in March 2020 it presented our region, like others across the country, with new social and economic challenges. Research suggested that the West Midlands could be the hardest-hit region – and indeed we have seen levels of unemployment spike.
Disadvantaged residents, young people and BAME communities have suffered the most. We have also seen an unprecedented surge in the number of adults requiring retraining and upskilling as they navigate a new job market during, and post Covid-19.
A solid foundation
Yet we feel we were well prepared to respond to the crisis. At the start of the 2019/20 academic year, the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) took ownership of the £126 million Adult Education Budget (AEB) for the West Midlands. This was in an effort to align skills delivery with the wider economic strategy for the region, ensuring more people were able to get into jobs, had accessible opportunities to build skills, and could develop career opportunities through strong and inclusive further education (FE) and skills provision.
While the impact of the pandemic is far from over, we have been able to adapt swiftly to become flexible and receptive to the challenges we face. Our recovery plans involved working closely with employers, businesses, governmental bodies, charities, and educators to monitor the landscape and stay ahead of the curve. Doing this has allowed us to create and tailor programmes that provide the right level of training, across key sectors, to help get people back into employment as quickly as possible.
The West Midlands is the largest regional economy in the UK, with a labour market of national significance. Yet as a region, it faces challenges in relation to high levels of unemployment, low productivity, a shortage of skills and limited social mobility. However, recognising the need for greater insight to identify the causes and address these issues, at the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), we set out in 2019 to deliver a better match between the skills of the people in the region and the current and future needs of businesses, to accelerate productivity and deliver economic growth.
It wasn’t long before our strategy was showing real promise. By the end of 2019, the employment rate in the region was at a record high, with 75.5 per cent (2.82 million) of people in work. Productivity was improving at a faster rate than the national average, and the working age population was more qualified than ever before. The training funded through the WMCA was delivering even more economic impact for the region with provision increasingly focused on getting people into jobs, on delivering higher level skills and developing our pilot programmes alongside employers, providers and job centres to ensure courses equipped people with the skills they needed to fill their recruitment gaps.
Our WMCA regional skills plan has been central to this success; understanding the needs of the region, forming partnerships and adding value were central to driving this meaningful and lasting change. As part of this, we have worked closely alongside various key stakeholders including Local Authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships, TUC, Colleges, Universities, training providers, Adult and Community Learning organisations and the voluntary sector, to build on the work they are already undertaking and create robust, and high-quality education and training for the diverse communities we serve. We have also forged strong employer relationships to identify the skills needed to help them grow and thrive both now and, in the future, and ensure we have provision that is fit for purpose and gets people into jobs.
Dealing with the pandemic
For example, we know there are recruitment and skills shortages in construction, advanced manufacturing and engineering, business, and professional services as well as digital skills. Therefore, we have been focusing on these areas to match the demand with the newly acquired skills gained by those seeking employment and retraining.
The WMCA currently spends around 72 per cent of its adult education budget on unemployed adults, with a large portion of this attributed to basic level English and maths training. However, assessing recent events and the needs emerging from this crisis, we now have a mixed pool of adults and skilled professionals looking for new jobs or wanting to start their own businesses. Therefore, in the absence of any additional funding, we have adapted our FE provision needs to meet these new demands and provide accessible, engaging and skill-appropriate content.
When allocating the AEB, we need to be fluid with our funding to meet the demands of the local economy and react accordingly to the ever-changing landscape. For us, this has meant working closely with colleges and businesses to identify the provision needed and provide the most suitable training to fill the employment gaps. This doesn’t just span sector-based skills either, but also includes accessible training for workplace wellbeing, in order to support the wider employee health and wellbeing agenda and help employers with productivity and engagement levels.
Covid-19 has also impacted the way training is delivered, and we have seen a greater shift to online delivery and blended learning options to provide a greater access to skills. We have also created new training opportunities through our free sector work-based programmes which provide a clear roadmap to help people get back on track, particularly if they are unemployed, have been furloughed or are worried about their current employment prospects.
Our Construction Gateway programme provides formal, job entry construction training through both online provision and practical onsite experience with Tier 1 employers and their supply chain. It has so far helped over 2,000 residents over two years, with over 50 per cent of those securing skilled career opportunities within a matter of weeks of completion. Since Covid-19, we have had to adapt the programme and shift to online training which has not only provided a bridge for people to build skills and experience without having to physically be on-site or in the classroom, but also presented a timely opportunity for the construction workforce to continue adapting to new ways of working. For example, new technological developments, such as GPS machine controls, are entering the construction industry – demonstrating a need for workers to continually evolve with the sector regardless of Covid-19.
Our community learning providers have risen to the challenge of supporting people with the skills they need to prepare them for work but also for life – digital skills so they can access services and support children with home schooling and wrap around support to ensure people remain connected to support their mental health. Keeping communities and residents engaged in learning through the pandemic is critical to ensure they are supported with their goals.
Further education is critical in safeguarding the region’s employment opportunities and supporting our economic recovery, providing people with the training and skills required to thrive in the workplace. Crucial to this success has been our investment and commitment into a place-based approach to FE and skills, working closely alongside employers to deliver exactly what they need, while adapting to the changing landscape. By working together and reacting swiftly and effectively to regional demands and a diverse audience, we believe we have a clear roadmap to navigate the pandemic, reboot our economy and accelerate growth in key sectors.
Dr Julie Nugent is Director of Skills and Productivity at the West Midlands Combined Authority. She has held a range of senior roles across government and further education, with particular expertise in financing further education, having developed new funding systems for the Skills Funding Agency and the Learning and Skills Council. Julie has worked in the Black Country and in Birmingham – strengthening her understanding of skills in improving economic competitiveness and people’s life chances. Recently Julie led on the West Midlands negotiations with Government securing the first Skills Deal in the country with additional investment of £100 million to develop the region’s skills.
Clare Hatton is Head of Skills Delivery at the West Midlands Combined Authority, leading on the delivery of the WMCA’s skills portfolio. This includes the recently-devolved £130m Adult Education Budget and a range of pilot initiatives including digital retraining, and employment support pilots. She works with regional partners to shape support for skills and employment aligned to priority growth sectors, particularly those targeted through the Local Industrial Strategy, driving up skill levels to secure sustainable employment, enhance skills and improve productivity. Previously, Clare worked for the Learning and Skills Council in senior policy roles, for PWC in their public sector practice supporting a range of national and government clients, and spent four years working in the senior leadership team at City College Coventry.