Can Wales Build Back Better, Forever – Through Skilling?

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When the Bank of England forecast a strong resurgent UK economy last week, it did more than reflect the tremendous impact of the vaccination programme and the ‘natural bounce’ of an economy that will shrink a further 4.2% in Q1 of 2021.

It highlighted the combination of record saving levels (£125 billion) squirreled away by consumers during the pandemic, suggesting a confidence to spend ‘big’ as normal life returns; and a government commitment to getting UK plc moving by any means possible – including the possibility of negative interest rates being offered by High Street lenders.

Andrew Bailey, the Governor of the Bank of England, described the vaccine rollout as “Excellent news … that is going to support a sustained recovery throughout the rest of the year.” The team here at Business News Wales believe it could be much more than that. Having talked to business, government and community leaders across Wales continuously since the crisis broke last March, we think this the launchpad for the ‘New Wales’ envisioned and prepared for by many different stakeholders across the country these past 10 months.

“This is the moment for New Wales to leave the launchpad”

Why do we think that? We’ve seen the ambitious yet focused ‘Five for Five’ strategy coming to fruition through the collective endeavour of Cardiff Capital Region. We’ve witnessed the determination shown by the North Wales Ambition Board to put in place a plan of action that will transform that region. We’ve talked with people at the Swansea City Deal and heard their practical passion for unleashing the potential of the West …. watched Mid-Wales form its own identity as a centre of green economy and rural enterprise … and seen at first hand the 24/7 drive being shown by Ken Skates and his fellow Ministers to reset a future-proofed economy and workforce.  Above all, We’ve marvelled at the ingenuity demonstrated by Welsh businesses of all sizes and in all sectors – and the remarkable resilience shown in every community.

“We need to believe, seize this moment – and do it.”

The time for Wales is literally “Now”. Last week was National Apprenticeship Week. What will the Apprentices of today say to us in five years’ time? ‘Well done for grabbing the opportunity and giving me and my family the future we deserve?’ Or, “Thanks for Nothing.” In fact, what will everyone in employment or looking for a future say to us in five years’ time, when 20% of today’s jobs will have disappeared to automation and the countries that are winning will be those who took the brave actions and made the hard yards right now? It’s not just about recovering from a pandemic – it’s about making this fourth industrial revolution work for us, rather than being plucky survivors or victims of it. We have a one-off chance to upskill and reskill, to build back better, to level-up, to scale-up – and make Wales a place of inclusive growth and sustainable prosperity. We’re a small and clever nation that punches above its weight in everything from the Creative Industries to Compound Semiconductors, from Fintech and Medtech to Higher Education and Renewable Energy. We now just need to believe, seize this moment – and do it.

“If I can do it, anyone can do it – with the right support and encouragement.”

There are plenty of reasons to believe. We spoke with Huw Jones, Openreach’s Director for Service Delivery, who started his working life 23 years ago as an Apprentice with the UK’s largest private sector provider of traineeships: “If I can do it anyone can do it – as long as people have the support and encouragement that I’ve enjoyed from my very first day, when I walked with a fair bit of trepidation into the Openreach depot in Bridgend. The commitment and empathy shown to me by that team and every other colleague since has meant that I’ve been able to build a career from Customer Service Engineer to Operations Manager and several steps beyond. I’m now trusted with the responsibility for maintaining the entire Openreach network in Wales and the Midlands because of the great team around me – and the faith shown in me to fulfil my own potential.”

“Wales can map the motivations of its people and match them to the right training and jobs, starting now.”

John Kilvington, Director of Career-Fit, confirms that Wales has a one-off opportunity to provide a fulfilling future to everyone in every community across the country: “And Wales can start that process right now. We’re currently mapping the motivations of whole populations across 14 countries in the UAE, enabling those countries to match their people with the ‘right’ training, careers, vocations or entrepreneurial opportunities – and unlocking the potential of people to enjoy the working life that’s right for them, as productive citizens with a real stake in society. Why can’t Wales grab this opportunity, just as the West Midlands engine is starting to? It’s not just about making the most of young and emerging talent, either. It’s about matching the natural aspirations and abilities of people of all ages – and that gives Wales the chance to build sustainable talent pipelines for every sector, continually upskilling and reskilling people throughout their lives, as well as supporting those who want to start up their own enterprise.”

“We need a bottom-up and top-down approach centred on the individual”

Louise Harris, Director of Cardiff-based Big Learning Company, concurs: “We’ve grown to become one of the leading digital learning organisations in the UK simply because we look to engage with the individual. It’s a bottom up as well as top down approach, that makes the most of the potential here in Wales and also allows Wales plc to develop and retain the latent talent that is undoubtedly here. Our digital apprenticeships, for example, are proving to be incredibly popular and effective because we look to make the whole learner experience as interesting and ‘personal’ as possible, whether that’s through VR, gaming, innovations such as the LEGO Academy – or simply taking the time to understand the hopes, dreams and ambitions of the individual looking to learn.”

“You can achieve whatever you want as an individual, an organisation or as a country.”

The pandemic has caused much soul-searching and talk of an ‘employment reset’, but even before COVID hit, enlightened employers were taking an increasingly mature view of harnessing the talent available in every community. Wayne Hutt, Skills Superstar for the Grassroots Programme run by RS Components, has observed at first hand how it’s possible to ‘activate’ the potential of anyone, from his current work with people who have progressed through being mentored into meaningful work: “It’s a matter of engaging with the individual, helping them understand themselves and what they’re capable of doing in life. We’re working with people to open their eyes and their minds; then identifying the direction that’s right for them. Do that and you can achieve whatever you want, as an individual, an organisation or as a country.”

“It’s a matter of engaging with the individual, helping them understand themselves and what they’re capable of doing in life.”

Talking to people with the broad perspectives of Huw, John, Louise and Wayne, it’s obvious that the opportunity is there for government, education, training providers and employers to work together to make Wales one of the most skilled and agile workforces in the world. Can Wales as a country grab this moment? The answer, clearly, is “Yes”. The key question is ‘Will We?’

#GetWalesToWork