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Professor Liz Barnes on the LEP’s future value in focusing on skills and breaking down barriers to education as key to economic growth

Professor Liz Barnes CBE DL is the Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive at Staffordshire University, Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire LEP Board Member and Chair of the Workforce Advisory Group. Liz sets out how LEPs are at the heart of joining up co-ordinated strategies to develop the rights skills for better jobs into the future.

Whether you are employed, self-employed or unemployed you will probably, at some point, have found the last 20 months a struggle.

For many the world has seemed an uncertain place with hard to predict futures but, thankfully, we are now seeing the early signs of recovery. As we countdown to the end of 2021, and look forward to 2022, I am encouraged that the world is settling back down to a more normal rhythm.

It is a welcome return from past stresses. Over time we have become accustomed to worrying news bulletins about spiralling infection rates, people losing loved ones, and an overburdened NHS – as well as being regularly informed that our economy was looking perilous. It was only back in February this year that it was announced the UK economy in 2020 suffered the biggest fall since the ‘great frost’ of 1709.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) the economy shrank by a record 9.9 per cent in 2020. This came after a record plunge in Gross Domestic Product during the first lockdown in 2020 and the overall decline in output was more than twice as deep than in 2009 when the global financial crisis caused GDP to fall 4.1 per cent.

Thankfully, the future is now looking much rosier. The latest data from the ONS this month brought welcome news on the UK’s unemployment figures – with unemployment falling from 4.7 per cent to 4.6 per cent in the three months to July, and with more than one million job vacancies on offer across the country – the highest for 20 years.

The number of people in employment, meanwhile, rose from 74.7 percent to 75.2 percent. Those in the age bracket of 16 to 24, who were among the hardest hit in the jobs market during the pandemic, saw a particularly strong rise in the employment rate and a sharp decrease in the unemployment rate.

With the rising number of jobs and with sectors such as health and social care, the green economy, construction, and digital and creative technologies continuing to expand, it is more important than ever that focus is put on giving people the skills they need so they can become the workforce of the future.

Here at Staffordshire University, one of our focuses is to help people from a wide range of backgrounds take full advantage of the job of tomorrow by preparing for them now. It is our duty and privilege to prepare people with the practical and digital skills required along with flexible skills they’ll need to get the attention of future employers.

Alongside this, we work in partnership with organisations such as Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Local Enterprise Partnership to address the economic and civic needs of our city and region.

Like universities, local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) bring people together for the collective good of the region where they are based.

The Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire LEP supports businesses by working collaboratively with local councils, education institutions, industry bodies and other organisations across the public and private sector. By being a voice for Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire nationally, more than one billion of additional investment has been unlocked in the region.

Ensuring that local businesses and people can take advantage of these opportunities is critical. This is one of the reasons behind Staffordshire University’s new landmark building The Catalyst, an 8,800 sqm, four-storey building that will bring together the delivery of apprenticeships and skills, to meet employer demand, in a flexible, high-quality, digitally enabled space.

The Catalyst has also played a role in combatting the UK’s growing construction skills shortage which requires 160,000 new recruits within the sector to keep up with demand by 2023. Month-long work placements have enabled local students and graduates from non-construction backgrounds to immerse themselves in all aspects of the industry from the commercial side of construction through to on-site engineering.

The Catalyst is a substantial £40 million investment and will touch the lives of thousands of people across our region as the result of a partnership between academia and industry.

Bringing partners together regionally and nationally is critical to the future success of Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire and, as a LEP Board Member and Chair of the Future Workforce Advisory Group, it is heartening to see the LEP leading the charge.

Ensuring that local people and businesses have access to the right skills to support our growing economy is the cornerstone of future growth. With an emphasis on digital skills, we can all work together to ensure that our area’s businesses stay competitive and that the people who live, work and invest locally have the opportunity to progress in their careers and lives.

By focussing on the future workforce, the LEP has reached more than 520,000 people through a virtual jobs fair in 2020/21, helping them find vacancies, careers information and support in growing sectors.

In addition, more than 22,000 learners took part in skills programmes funded through our region’s European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) allocation. In total, 9,000 of these individuals progressed to employment, education or training in our local area.

So now is time to put the worries of the past behind us and proceed full steam ahead on the future that we can all build together. With a focus on a skilled workforce and the jobs of tomorrow we can ensure our region becomes known as a hotspot for innovation and enterprise.

Professor Liz Barnes CBE DL is the Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive at Staffordshire University.

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