Can devolution close the skills gap?

The East Midlands devolution deal is set to shift some funding and powers from Whitehall directly into the region. How will these changes impact on skills and levelling up in Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire?

At the end of August this year a deal was agreed that is likely to have significant implications for our region for the next 30 years.

The East Midlands devolution deal is set to bring an initial £1.14 billion of investment into the region and shift funding and powers from a national to a regional level.

Decisions about training and transport, for example, will no longer be taken in Whitehall but right here in the East Midlands, using local knowledge and addressing local needs. All of this will take place under the leadership of a new Mayoral County Combined Authority (MCCA) representing Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire.

The story so far

The deal was signed at Rolls-Royce in Derby, and the signatories were the leaders of the local councils and the then Levelling Up Minister, Greg Clark. It isn’t yet done, though. A public consultation between November and January will give the people of the region the opportunity to share their views. Then the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill – the legislation that will allow this to happen – needs to pass through Parliament next year. If all that happens, the East Midlands MCCA could have its first elected mayor in May 2024.

Two people at work in a technical setting

A region with potential

Devolution appears to be good news for the two cities and counties. Public spending here is historically low and productivity lags behind the national average – according to the East Midlands devolution deal document, it would take a 14.6% increase to close the gap and yet it’s a region brimming with potential with over 88,000 businesses providing more than 930,000 jobs. It boasts major tourist attractions including the Peak District National Park and Sherwood Forest, and it’s at the heart of the country, well-placed to take strategic advantage of initiatives such as the East Midlands Freeport and East Midlands Development Corporation.

Writing in FE Week in September, shortly after the deal was signed, Ben Bradley, Conservative MP for Mansfield and Leader of Nottinghamshire County Council, was enthusiastic about the opportunities presented: “The deal gives us new powers over transport, skills, and the economy. This is crucial for levelling up – it’s the key to bringing in new jobs, and to giving people in our area the skills and connectivity so they can access those jobs.”

This positivity is echoed by Professor Warren Manning, the University’s Provost - Innovation & Research: “As a university we would say it’s an incredibly positive deal that we look forward to being agreed,” he says. “But there’s work to do to bring together the key players, including the Local Enterprise Partnership, universities, CBI, East Midlands Chamber and the Federation of Small Businesses.”

Meeting existing demand

From a skills perspective, there’s lots to be done to level up the region. There are significant skills gaps to address in order to meet the demand from employers already operating here, as well as developing a pipeline to encourage new businesses to base themselves in the region. Professor Manning explains: “We don’t have enough highly skilled labour in the region. To drive inward investment, you need to demonstrate there’s a pipeline providing business skills requirement. We need a better supply pool now which is going to require significant capital investment to close the skills gap in areas such as zero carbon, nuclear, hydrogen and digitisation. And then we need to put systems in place so that people can transition between jobs – mid-career training opportunities, for example.”

Mandie Stravino OBE, Chief Executive Officer of Derby College Group, points to specific skills and labour shortages in Derbyshire, including manufacturing, digital occupations, health and social care, logistics, construction and hospitality. “Devolution will provide the impetus and hopefully the means for colleges to collaborate with others to deliver a skills solution that meets the collective needs of employers,” she says. “This is something that colleges in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire have already successfully demonstrated through the SDF-funded Skills Accelerator Programme.”

This will see money invested locally on new bespoke training programmes designed in partnership with employers to meet the skills needs of businesses now and in the future. Its focus will be on creating high-impact training and short courses that are bespoke and responsive to employers’ needs to address skills gaps and shortages.

Mandie Stravino

Devolution will provide the impetus and hopefully the means for colleges to collaborate with others to deliver a skills solution that meets the collective needs of employers.

Mandie Stravino OBE
Chief Executive Officer, Derby College Group

Working together

Devolution will also provide the opportunity for institutions and organisations to work together on innovative ways to address broader local learning needs, as Mandie explains: “This could include English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) which provides adults arriving in the city – often with high-level technical skills gained in their previous home country – with the language skills to progress into the workplace here. And adults may require English or Maths GCSEs to enable them to access higher levels of learning which will in turn benefit them in terms of higher earning potential; their families by equipping them with skills to support children’s learning; and the community in general with an increased talent pool.”

Collaborative working will be the key to success in the future. Professor Jeremy Gregory, Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University of Nottingham, explains: “The deal provides an excellent opportunity for universities to work more closely with the public and private sectors to increase innovation across the region. The new devolved powers and funding will enable us to deliver targeted knowledge exchange activity that addresses specific local business needs and support the development of the region as a centre of excellence in key technology areas.”

Robin Webber-Jones, the University of Derby’s Head of Apprenticeships, believes that this could be a challenge in certain circumstances: “We work in a marketised economy, so there is going to be some inherent tension, but there is a need to identify what is up for discussion and collaboration.”

Professor Manning agrees: “This is not about spreading regeneration money equally and everywhere – bigger investments could drive up productivity for the whole region, so you are better investing in the larger projects than many smaller local schemes.”

Warren Manning

We don't have enough highly skilled labour in the region. To drive inward investment you need to demonstrate there's a pipeline providing business skills requirement.

Professor Warren Manning
Provost - Innovation & Research at the University of Derby

Reaping the benefits

Derby College and the University of Derby are already seeing the benefits of collaboration, as Mandie explains: “Discussions have established strategic work to further evolve and shape the partnership with the University and increase our joint profile and impact both regionally and nationally. Progression routes from the College through to the University will be mapped to show an accelerator into learning between the two organisations and the work on the Institute of Technology has ignited this effort.”

There are plenty of good examples already of partnerships with industry and employers identifying and addressing skills needs. Colleges and universities across the region offer a range of apprenticeships with local employers. Derby College Group (DCG) was one of the first providers to offer T-levels - 16-19 qualifications, broadly equivalent to three A-levels - that focus on technical and vocational skills.

Businesses have been involved in supporting courses such as the T-level in Construction: Design, Surveying and Planning. Among these is the Greenhatch Group. Its Senior Surveyor, Sam Lewis, advised DCG on equipment and delivered practical surveying tuition at the College and off-site on fieldtrips. He says: “We work in a highly qualified, well-educated and well-paid profession with a lot to offer young people, so it is important for us to be involved with DCG to ensure the talent pipeline into the industry.”

The company also works with the University to offer degree apprenticeships and placement opportunities on Built Environment courses.

Nuclear skills

In September, Rolls-Royce opened the doors to 200 apprentices at its new Nuclear Skills Academy. This partnership project, supported by the University and key nuclear industry organisations, addresses major skills gaps and will provide a pipeline to help sustain nuclear capability within the UK submarines programme.

Nuclear energy is just one example of the need for new skills, says Professor Manning: “We know that Rolls-Royce need more highly skilled labour to satisfy their needs in defence and energy, even just in nuclear submarines. When you look across nuclear energy sectors, the problem scales up significantly. The systems we use and rely on in the future will be different, and climate change is driving a lot of that agenda – so is data, and the need to be competitive.”

There’s clearly lots of optimism around the potential that devolution presents. But for some there’s a question mark about the omission of Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland. Professor Manning explains: “The deal was put together quickly, as one of the last actions of Boris Johnson’s government. Leaving out Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland meant the deal could be agreed quickly, which was a good thing. But as a university we would be keen to look at a bigger geography and include those areas. You could see this deal as phase one and in future phases we’d look to other partners in the region becoming involved.”

Find out more about the East Midlands devolution deal.

The public consultation about the devolution deal runs from 14 November 2022 to 9 January 2023. Find out more and have your say.

Written by Heather Turley