Construction Gateway in the West Midlands has resulted in wider economic benefits and more students finding jobs, says Clare Hatton

“Levelling-up” has become a buzz word in politics, particularly following the prime minister’s pledge to provide equal opportunity and future prosperity.

But as we continue to navigate a global health crisis, it is set to become even more important as we try to ensure that economically disadvantaged populations no longer fall behind and that the new wave of unemployment is quickly addressed. A step-change in FE is needed, providing a deeper understanding of the evolving needs of communities to equip people with the right skills and training opportunities to drive improvements in local economic performance, as well as rebalancing productivity and social mobility.

In this year’s Budget the government said it would spend £1.5 billion over five years upgrading and improving colleges.

We must be strategic now and in the aftermath of the pandemic

This is a positive move, but more cash is needed in the impending spending review to address the urgent need to boost the economy, especially in the light of Covid-19.

The role of FE in driving adult education, skills retraining and supporting the wider levelling-up agenda will therefore be substantial and calls for a more collaborative approach.

Shifting priorities and provision

FE is vital in securing the country’s future and shaping our economy and society. With more than 2.2 million young people and adults requiring education and skills training, this has never been more important. However, we must consider reinvigorating the system to ensure we can be strategic in helping individuals and employers requiring support, now and in the aftermath of the pandemic.

We must create more accessible routes to rebalance the opportunities for a wider range of people; greater collaboration is needed between colleges, providers and employers to identify and address the skills needs of their particular regions.

Devolution has allowed the WMCA to effectively respond to the region’s sectoral priorities, targeting investment in skills where it is needed. Having control of the adult education budget for the West Midlands has given us the autonomy to better identify and respond to the needs of learners and employers, matching the right skills with the incoming demand.

Learning from successes

Unemployment is generally higher across the West Midlands than the UK average, and workers are generally lower skilled. However, the region has performed better than average in terms of improving these measures since the foundation of the combined authority. Processes focus on training and skills provision, and job opportunities that support the region’s wider economic and social priorities.

Our Construction Gateway programme, which provides basic construction training through the classroom and practical onsite experience, targets the hardest to reach residents.

This includes the long-term unemployed, ex-offenders and BAME groups. Forty-nine per cent of students have been from BAME groups and 5 per cent have been women (compared with 7 per cent and 1 per cent respectively across the sector).

The programme has successfully delivered a much stronger focus on matching skills funding with the skills needs of construction, and this knowledge has in turn helped the relationships between training providers and major construction employers to improve significantly. They have been able to better understand the current vacancies and the relevant training requirements to meet immediate and future skills needs.

Consequently, employers have identified improved access to skilled, motivated and “work ready” staff, also improving the perception of those within harder to reach demographics.

Greater collaboration and better understanding can now be applied to other sectors and regions in a bid to rebalance social disparity.

Looking ahead

The importance of building strong partnerships with business, employers, FE colleges and training providers, and being responsive to their needs, has never been so important. The FE sector must adopt a more collaborative approach to skills and retraining, building local knowledge and relationships to address the economic and social priorities and close the wealth and opportunity gap