Industrial strategies have come and gone over the years, and few have really had any lasting effect because they have lacked support from the government. However, the latest announced today by the Prime Minister at her first cabinet meeting outside London - in Warrington - seems to have at its heart perhaps the greatest challenge we have in UK industry - the lack of skills development.
The government’s Green Paper talks of a string of new Institutes of Technology in England and Wales for students from 16-19 years of age. Students will get solid trade skills -particularly in engineering and construction.
Throughout this region, the skills gap is widening and so we must encourage more young people to study the STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Greg Clark, the Business Minister, talks of a new emphasis on vocational skills for non-graduates in the strategy. This is absolutely right. Our young people need to know all options available to them and the job potential linked to each option.
For some, university is a good option but it is not good enough to leave university with a degree alone. At graduation students also need to have tangible skills to put in front of an employer. Our surveys show businesses constantly calling for this.
An apprentice, is an alternative option for a young person who wants to develop their skills in the world of work. There are great opportunities at world class companies in this region like Airbus and Renishaw.
And the Higher Apprenticeship degrees at university enable the bright young stars to be paid as they get their extra qualifications.
While the government rightly pushes apprenticeships, I am afraid that they have not done a great job so far in selling the advantages of the apprenticeship levy - to be introduced in April this year.
Business West are currently planning information seminars on the apprenticeship levy with local colleges. The first is a breakfast meeting at Swindon College on 7 February at 7.15am and includes speakers from Swindon College, Oxford Brookes, Swindon Borough Council as well as a number of employers including BMW. Attendees will also have the chance to take part in a Q&A session.
The Green Paper promises a blitz to boost productivity - easier said than done. In the UK, we lag behind our overseas competition, and as a result are often uncompetitive on price.
Greg Clark announced £556 million for the so-called Northern Powerhouse, brainchild of the former Chancellor George Osborn. Whether that is old money already announced is debatable, but what I believe is required is a recognition that the South West is also something of a powerhouse.
So, where is the government support for our dynamic region with Bristol generally recognised as a driving, young city? We hope that this region is going to get a greater slice of the government’s support cake sooner rather than later.
There are basically ten pillars to the government’s industrial strategy:
- Invest in science, research and innovation
- New emphasis on vocational skills for non-graduates
- Upgrading of digital, energy, transport, water and flood-defence infrastructure
- Help for business to improve accountancy and management skills
- Whitehall to buy more British products
- Blitz to boost productivity
- Use of clean, cheaper energy to conserve costs and innovate in green technology
- Assist high performing industries and identify successors
- Investment for poorer regions
- Back government departments which make a difference for industry
The government’s intentions here are obviously good but there appears to be a larger degree of business intervention than ever before.
It does remind me of the Michael Heseltine mantra when he was in charge of business for the government when he said he was prepared to intervene before breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Business generally likes to do its own thing and not be told what to do by politicians. Government should set the conditions for business growth then get out of the way and let business do what they do best.