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10,000 jobs a month unfilled in Birmingham ‘because workforce lacks basic skills’

10,000 jobs a month unfilled in Birmingham ‘because workforce lacks basic skills’

🕔24.Feb 2015

One shocking statistic leaps from the pages of the latest city council blueprint for economic growth in east Birmingham, and it is this: 10,000 job vacancies remain unfilled in Birmingham each month, writes Paul Dale. 

That is 120,000 job chances going begging but never snapped up over the course of a year.

To make matters worse, most of these opportunities are not in high-tech firms or professional services where very specific qualifications are required. Most of the jobs on offer are at “entry level”, according to the council, probably in the retail sector, largely unskilled and low-wage.

As low-skilled as these jobs may be they represent a life chance to move from welfare to the world of work and, hopefully, progress up the career ladder. Sadly, too many employers have concluded that applicants from east Birmingham and across the city as well simply don’t have the required skillsset to be offered any work at all.

The Kerslake Review of the council’s governance capabilities seized on the skills issue:

Parts of Birmingham are among the most deprived in the country and as a result there are more poor children than anywhere else in England. This will not change while so many adults remain low skilled and are locked out of the new jobs the city’s businesses are creating. These are the conditions in which distrust and division can thrive.

For Birmingham to achieve its full potential and tackle these challenges Birmingham City Council must do better. The overwhelming consensus of those we have spoken to is that the council cannot carry on any longer as it is. We concur with that view.

The council’s East Birmingham Prospectus for Economic Growth, which sets out a vision to create 9,000 new jobs and build 1,000 homes, casts a light on years of failing to equip job hunters with the skills they require in a city that has moved light years away from volume car production and mass manufacturing of the 1970s, but hasn’t seized opportunities arising from new-style employment.

The prospectus sums up the current position:

The low skills base impacts on the ability of local residents to compete in the labour market with better qualified people both from other parts of Birmingham and in-commuters from the surrounding areas.

There’s an implicit admission of the urgency surrounding this. Birmingham’s population is set to grow by 150,000 over the next 17 years, creating the need for 50,000 new homes and 100,000 jobs.

The job mix in Birmingham is forecast to change significantly, with fewer low skilled posts and more high-skilled jobs “suggesting that lower skilled residents may be less able to work in the future”, according to the growth prospectus.

Placing the east Birmingham growth plan in context, the area covered by the prospectus is just over a quarter of the entire city land mass and home to 280,000 people.  Unemployment is 9.5 per cent compared with a city-wide average of 6.5 per cent. One third of residents claim JobSeekers’ Allowance. Youth unemployment is above 20 per cent. The picture is grim.

Council leaders accept that all previous attempts to regenerate the area have proved useless. They insist things will be different this time because of two major changes.

The first is an unprecedented opportunity for economic growth that will occur when HS2 arrives in Birmingham, with significant job creation expected around the Curzon Street city centre station and the International station at the NEC, now re-marketed as The Hub @ UK Central.

The second change involves a new partnership between the city council and the Department for Work and Pensions with a focus on preparing people for work and matching job-seekers with job opportunities. Council chief executive Mark Rogers will head up a new Employment and Skills Partnership for East Birmingham, with an action plan to be launched next month.

Mr Rogers, who candidly admits that in the past the DWP presided over “probably the worst performance in the country” in helping Birmingham people to access the jobs that were available, has outlined a short term and long term plan.

Immediate emphasis will be on matching applicants with the 10,000 unfilled job vacancies each month. Efforts are underway to mentor school leavers and give them experience of the world of work as well as encouraging the “entrepreneurial spirit” of many east Birmingham residents by helping them to form their own businesses. Job vacancies in the new Grand Central shopping centre at New Street Station are being directed at unemployed people living in Birmingham.

In the longer term it will be crucial to link up schools, universities, businesses and DWP to make sure young people are leaving education with the qualifications they require.

More than £1 million of DWP Community Budget Grant Funding is being handed to Birmingham to provide enhanced pre-employment training directly linked to vacancies and future jobs in key sectors. There is also a commitment to co-locate DWP Job Centre Plus staff and city council staff to provide a focus on areas with the highest levels of disadvantage.

A huge question mark hovers over the strategy’s deliverability, particularly the timeframe envisaged for creating the 9,000 promised jobs and upskilling the workforce. Liam Byrne, the Hodge Hill MP, admits this has to be a long term plan because improved connectivity through HS2 and extension of the Midland Metro to Adderley Park and on to the NEC is many years away.

There is a difference of opinion within the Birmingham Labour party about the type of jobs that might flow from HS2 and, crucially, how many will go to people living in Birmingham.

Mr Byrne nailed his colours to the mast at a media briefing on the east Birmingham prospectus by pointing out that journey times between London and Birmingham will be cut to 49 minutes when HS2 arrives and this would be a “game changer” because it would provide a tremendous boost for Birmingham’s growing reputation as a centre for the financial and professional services sector.

City council leader Sir Albert Bore is of the same opinion and has described the arrival of HS2 as a once in a generation opportunity for job creation. We can expect more Grade A office development of the type already coming on stream at Snow Hill and Paradise.

Some other Labour councillors, particularly allies of leadership challenger John Clancy, believe HS2 will ultimately create jobs largely for highly-paid lawyers and accountants, many of whom will live in the countryside surrounding Birmingham or commute in from London on HS2. They have little faith in the unemployed, low-skilled residents of east Birmingham cashing in on the professional services boom. There is, though, general acceptance that huge priority must be attached to upskilling the city workforce in the post-Kerslake era.

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