Aligning skills interventions with regional economic strategy

Developing the right skills for a geographical area is a major challenge. Will Cookson has found a way to identify skills demand in the Thames Valley

Whenever we are confronted by a challenge, one of the key factors determining whether the decisions we take turn out to be good or bad is the level of knowledge we have about the situation to begin with. This principle very much applies to the question of how to fix the nation’s skills shortages, which have undoubtedly become more acute in recent years.

One of the mistakes that is often made around skills is to try to fix the problem without first getting acquainted with what the skills gaps actually are and where they are.

Instead, there is a tendency to make assumptions about what is needed across the nation, and then to apply the apparent solutions with a broad brush to all regions. ‘We need more engineers,’ for example, is a perennial cry that we hear. Perhaps we do, but what type of engineers is it that we need and where is it that they are needed?

The challenge for economic developers grappling with this issue is to align skills interventions with economic strategy in their region. Put another way, economic developers need to be able to identify specific industry targets, understand their occupational and skills needs, and then turn this intelligence into an actionable strategy. But exactly how can this be achieved?

The starting point is to better understand the trends for industries in your area. We have recently made this process much easier by developing a methodology that groups industries into ‘clusters’, based on factors such as a tendency to co-locate in the same areas, similar workforce and supply chain connections.

For example, if we look at the Thames Valley Berkshire Local Enterprise Partnership (TVB) region, we can identify the top five projected growth clusters over the next five years as follows:

  • Digital (3,375 extra jobs projected from 2017-2022)
  • Food and beverage (2,057)
  • Education and knowledge creation (2,024)
  • Education and childcare (1,583)
  • Commercial services (1,428)

After identifying a region’s industry clusters, the next step is to delve into those clusters to determine what their occupation demands are. For instance, if we look at the biggest projected growth sector in the TVB region – digital – we can identify projected occupation demand within the cluster. These are the top five occupations, in terms of projected growth between 2017-22:

  • Programmers and software development professionals (623 new jobs)
  • IT specialist managers (229)
  • Information technology and telecommunications professionals n.e.c. (223)
  • Sales accounts and business development managers (174)
  • IT business analysts, architects and systems designers (160)

In addition to identifying the occupations, by using Job Postings Analytics we can go further and identify the specific skills needs within any of those occupations. For instance, by analysing job adverts in the TVB region for programmers and software development professionals over the past 12 months, we find that the most sought after hard skills in programming languages SQL, which appeared in 28% of all adverts, JavaScript (27%) and Java (26%).

Put these three things together – identifying industry clusters, establishing their occupation demand and determining their skills needs – and any economic developer will be in a far better place to understand what their industry skills needs are in their region, so that they can prioritise interventions, and work with local education providers to ensure that they are training people in the right skills.

Good insight really is a prerequisite to good decision-making. Skills interventions that are made without knowledge of the situation, or with selective data being brought in after the fact to justify decisions that have already been taken, are unlikely to help.

But if we start with the insight, listening to what it is telling us, letting it drive strategy and allowing it to inform skills interventions, we are much more likely to start seeing better regional decisions being made, and ultimately industries getting the skills that they really need to thrive and prosper.


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