A Partnership Approach: The Role of Employment Support and Skills in Levelling Up

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Welcome to REDI-Updates. REDI-Updates aims to get behind the data and translate it into understandable terms. In this edition, WMREDI staff look at the government's flagship policy - Levelling Up. We look at the challenge of implementing, understanding and measuring levelling up.

In this blog, Professor Anne Green and Dr Abigail Taylor discuss the key challenges that need to be overcome to improve employment support and skills in the UK. 

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Large disparities exist between and within local areas in terms of the proportion of residents with and without formal qualifications. Research by the Centre for Progressive Policy indicates that levelling up basic skills could raise employment by up to 302,000 in the most deprived areas and 573,000 across England. Progress is not just required in relation to basic skills levels. The Chartered Management Institute has emphasised how a lack of leadership and management skills is limiting UK productivity. In addition, WMREDI research has found that gaps exist in terms of how well existing national surveys capture new approaches to training, suggesting a need to expand focus on who is responsible for workplace training, communities of practice and perceived benefits of training.

A partnership approach to levelling up

Although higher levels of educational attainment translate into better employment outcomes, improving the supply of skills is only part of the story in levelling up. This is because skills are a derived demand; so, necessitating a focus on the demand for and utilisation of skills in addition to skills supply.

In turn, at the sub-national level, this calls for a holistic focus on employment support and skills strategies, characterised by integration across policy domains, most notably skills and economic development (where skills policy needs to be linked to economic development in order to address weak demand), but also cognate fields such as transport, health and housing. This means a partnership approach at the local/ city-regional/ regional level, founded on ongoing formal and informal communication, is necessary in order to apply local knowledge to tailor strategies to local needs and opportunities.

Local and international evidence (Green A., et al (2017), Froy F., et al (2012), Lyons H., et al (2020) and Taylor A., et al (2021))  points to the importance of a mutually reinforcing set of factors in effective local strategies. Central is a framework set by strong local economic governance and consistent policies and investment over the medium- and long-term. This framework provides a structure for stakeholders and players in the employment support and skills ecosystem. As well as local/city-regional government authorities and associated economic development partnerships/ agencies, key stakeholders include education and training providers, employers and employer representative bodies (given the centrality of labour demand considerations), sectoral bodies, trade unions and anchor institutions (from the public and the private sector). Partnership working implies collaboration between the further education sector, higher education institutions and private sector training providers to design and develop flexible and responsive training provision to meet current and future needs.

The experience in England is of a fragmented system which is difficult to navigate. Policy and financial frameworks tend to incentivise competition between skills partners rather than strategic collaboration at the place level. Frequent national reforms and centralised control over policy-making and budgets put obstacles in the way of local efforts to streamline skills provision and integrate it with other services.

Insights from local initiatives

Yet, there are ways forward. Recent years have seen several innovative initiatives which could be scaled up and developed to achieve levelling up. In terms of employment support policy, in 2017 the Departments for Work and Pensions in conjunction with the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government announced £35 million of support for six pilot schemes. The focus of the programmes vary, but a key aspect was how whilst nationally funded, the pilots were developed and delivered by combined authorities in partnership with the government. They included:

  • A ‘Health and Care Sector Progression Academy’ training social care workers in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.
  • Household-focused holistic support in Liverpool City Region.
  • Neighbourhood-focused support in the West Midlands Combined Authority is designed to strengthen communities by increasing income from work and improving health and wellbeing.

Evaluations of many of the pilots are still ongoing and not publicly available. However, evidence from Liverpool City Region indicates the value of investing in “locally tailored solutions” to support economic recovery and levelling up. Powers devolved through the programme meant that it could respond quickly and agilely to local needs during the Covid-19 pandemic. The pilots have either concluded or are due to conclude in 2022. Focus is now required on how to use learning from the pilots – particularly the benefits of local, regional, and national stakeholder partnership working – to inform future employment support policy.

In terms of skills strategies, WMREDI research into priorities for up-skilling and re-skilling emphasises the role that universities can play in supplying graduates and up-skilling the wider population to respond to emerging and future local and regional skills needs. Universities in the region have established a range of programmes and institutes to support upskilling and re-skilling across specific sectors important regionally, namely Advanced Manufacturing, Cyber, Healthcare, Sustainability and Climate Change, and Digital Skills. Partnering to expand graduate-focused careers guidance is a growing focus for universities in Birmingham. The research suggests that to achieve levelling up, in addition to partnerships funded and instigated by the national government, it is important that local and regional players including universities come together to identify and address local skills needs. Developing stronger local and regional partnerships is particularly important to respond to opportunities to support graduates to enter the labour market, better linking skills to innovation and developing higher-level skills through regional investment, R&D and innovation activities. There is potential to create more responsive local skills systems through developing a skills escalator approach at the regional level maximising collaboration between communities, Further Education and Higher Education.

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This blog was written by Dr Abigail Taylor, and Professor Anne Green, City-REDI / WMREDI, University of Birmingham.

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI, WMREDI or the University of Birmingham.

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