Daniel Chamier, who runs a bag manufacturing firm, explains why he thinks local colleges are failing to train the next generation of young people to work in northern factories.
I own and run a small Carlisle-based manufacturing business called John Chapman.
We are one of the last such companies in the UK that makes bags and luggage — and exist in a market where most products, even at the top end, are supplied by Chinese or Indian firms.
We produce products for other brands like The Brompton Bicycle Company and also sell worldwide under our own label, Chapman Bags.
We make all our bags in a small factory in Carlisle, employing around 25 people, drawn largely from the local community.
One of the major challenges now facing us is to find employees locally with the inclination and skills to make bags.
They need expertise in using a sewing machine, cutting, batching and preparing materials like canvas and leather and using the kind of machinery we employ to cut, prepare and finish leather panels and components for bags.
While historically Carlisle and Cumbria had textile mills, shoe factories and other industries employing thousands of people with these skills, now there are just a handful of companies operating in these sectors.
Manufacturing and construction remain important, however, with companies like Pirelli, United Biscuits and Metal Box all employing significant numbers.
There are sewing machines at the college but the point of the fashion design course is not really to learn how to use one
And while the heyday of the mills has gone, there are a number of specialist companies across the borders with a need for traditional textile manufacturing skills, including Barbour, New Balance, Sealy, Alpha Solway, Linton Tweeds, William Lockie, Johnstons of Elgin and Chapman Bags, to name a few.
In parallel with a shifting economy, cultural and educational developments have resulted in fundamental changes to the expectations and skillsets of young people in the area.
Whereas a 16-year-old might well have gone straight to his or her parents’ factory in the past, now they will likely pursue an FE course at Carlisle College.
The latter, housed in a fairly new campus near the city centre, is a thriving establishment offering a wide range of courses.
Inevitably, however, the majority of students tend to choose courses which align more closely with modern expectations of interesting and rewarding careers — so fore example fashion design rather than a qualification in using a sewing machine.
Yes, there are sewing machines at the college (and more than most), but no, the point of the fashion design course is not really to learn how to use one.
This example encapsulates in a nutshell the FE challenge in places like Carlisle.
Indeed, I would argue across much of the country; the further you get from London, the more skewed the courses appear towards a career in a London centric industry rather than industries in which jobs are actually available locally,.
The problem is, of course, that students attending local colleges are far less likely to get one of those London orientated service industry jobs than a degree level student at a metropolitan university.
This issue is compounded by what I perceive to be the general reticence in FE to involve local employers with local students.
To the extent that careers advice is available, it tends to be from the perspective of people with academic experience, not ex-professionals who know what it takes to become, for instance, a plumber, a bricklayer or a machinist in a factory.
We find this issue most severe with young men, who generally appear woefully unprepared for the world of work.
It’s as if no-one has ever told them what it takes to hold a job down, or even what jobs might be available locally.
We try to address these issues through regular visits to Carlisle College, attending local skills fairs, encouraging students to do work placements with us and offering apprenticeship programmes.
As a small company, however, we simply don’t have the resources to offer a comprehensive solution.
My own view is that, until we have institutions in the North of England specifically resourced to offer courses in skills with a more representative reflection of local industries, we will continue to suffer from skills shortages and relatively high youth unemployment — currently 15-20 per cent or more in many Northern towns and cities.
So where, you might ask, is the nearest institution in which a young person in Carlisle could obtain a qualification to operate a sewing machine or make a bag? The answer is Haute-Savoie, France.