Overcoming Milton Keynes Barriers to Growth

Thu 30 Jan 2014

A really interesting meeting took place in Milton Keynes a few days ago.  Business people from companies large and small came together with people from education including UCMK and Milton Keynes College under the auspices of the city’s new Chamber of Commerce.  They’d all come to meet Lord Adonis who was schools minister and Transport Secretary in the last government.  He’s on a nationwide tour gathering information to put into Labour’s growth strategy which is expected to be a cornerstone of the party’s election campaign.

It was really interesting to hear business people talk about borrowing money to expand.  We’re constantly hearing how difficult it is for companies to get money from the banks, yet those in Milton Keynes who wanted seven figure sums say borrowing such amounts really isn’t a problem.  Perversely, it was those directors who needed between quarter and half a million pounds who said it was a real struggle.  The old adage is still true; owe the bank a pound and the manager will forever be on your back.  Owe them a million pounds and he will take you out to lunch.

If one expression rang out loud and clear from the event it was skills gap.  There were irritations about recruits being unable to spell properly, being incapable of writing coherent reports, using text speak in business documents and so on, and this related as much to graduates as to employees at any other level.  However, many of those same individuals were extremely adept with their digital skills and understood effective electronic communication, use of social media etc.  What was not entirely surprising from my own experience but which should be shocking is the inability so many employers identified among recent graduates to turn up on time, to meet set deadlines and to take a degree of responsibility for their own work.

One thing the meeting suggested to me that people are coming to understand more is that not everybody should go to university.  Apprenticeships and Higher Apprenticeships (some of which are equivalent to an MSc) are starting to come into their own, and that has to be a good thing.  Some skills are better taught in the apprenticeship environment, and the association of the individual with a business throughout their training can only help to build those so-called soft skills relating to communication and employability.  Perhaps it is time for schools to be brave and to say to some of their students, “You have a great future ahead of you and actually, taking a good apprenticeship might be a better route for you than the obvious one of going to university.” 

Germany is always held up as the example of best practice in this area and it’s often pointed out that in that country vocational skills are not looked upon as in any way less valuable than academic ones.  It’s all about what the individual can bring to the business and a degree certificate per se doesn’t always guarantee their value.

Getting the apprenticeship model right will require cooperation between, schools, Milton Keynes College and ourselves.   There are areas where we compete with each other for pupils – and that’s not a bad thing.  Competition ensures we don’t become complacent and that we’re all always striving to provide the offering that young people will choose.  However, there has to be a coordinated approach so people can move between the different kinds of institutions with a seamless integration of opportunity.  We have to be flexible – not all employers can afford to have a number of their people taking the same day off every week for the College-based element of their apprenticeships.  Our joint offerings have to fit the people being trained AND the businesses they’re being trained for.  I look forward to Lord Adonis report, but even more I look forward to sitting round some more tables with colleagues from business and education to find the best ways of closing that skills gap.

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