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Northern Powerhouse? First we need the talent

by Samantha Cullen, online content journalist at DiginMMU.

If you live in any Northern city it has been difficult to avoid the term “Northern Powerhouse”.  Plans to turn cities like Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield into an economic hub to rival London, seems to be at the top of the Government agenda at the moment.  With key figures such as George Osborne and David Cameron even visiting the region to lay out their vision for the Northern cities. While the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, announced plans for a TechNorth - “bringing the pockets of excellence in tech industries from across the North together to form an internationally renowned virtual hub”.

In fact, back in June the Chancellor spoke at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) about plans to create this economic powerhouse:

“The cities of the north are individually strong, but collectively not strong enough. The whole is less than the sum of its parts. So the powerhouse of London dominates more and more. And that’s not healthy for our economy. It’s not good for our country. We need a Northern Powerhouse too.

Not one city, but a collection of northern cities - sufficiently close to each other that combined they can take on the world,” he told the audience.

He said that there were four issues that need to be addressed for this to happen – the first is greater transport links between the cities, with promises of a new high-speed trainline (HS3) linking Leeds and Manchester.  He also wants to see a focus on science and engineering by making use of the regions many universities, as well as building cultural links to make the cities attractive places to live and finally greater autonomy in local Government.  With these measures in place the Government hopes that the cities here in the North can become, in effect the UK’s second economic hub.

However, here in Manchester we are already seeing growth, especially in employment terms. A recent report by Oxford Economics for the New Economy has found that there will be 110,000 new jobs created in the city, across various sectors. So there are jobs there, but for a lot of firms in the digital sector there is simply not the talent there. In Manchester Digital’s last skills survey we found that businesses are turning away work as they cannot recruit at the rate and levels they need. 

But why is the skills gap so severe? Well part of it seems to come down to infrastructure issues, something which would need to be addressed at a Government level. According to Sarah Brooks-Pearce, Resourcing Partner for products and technology at Autotrader, despite cities like Leeds being around 30 miles away they are limited by how wide geographically they can cast their net when recruiting because of problems with the transportation infrastructure. While employees in London would willingly commute 30-40 miles for work, here in the North this doesn’t happen because of problems getting into cities like Manchester:

“Where we could reach out on a 30-40 mile radius into London, to do that here that would cover Liverpool and Leeds but I think we would really struggle to convince someone to commute in from Leeds every day at the minute,” she told us.

This is a concern echoed by Mark Hope, Digital director at Access, he welcomes the idea of working with other cities across the region but the transport infrastructure “makes collaborating more difficult than it should be.” It is this collaboration that he believes will be key to economic growth:

“We need to bring people together more easily. There is something to be said that bringing people together in the same environment creates innovation more rapidly,” he argues.

So HS3 gets built and the talent net widens as people can move more easily between the two cities, businesses will be able to get all the talent they can right? Well not necessarily for both Brooks-Pearce and Hope there needs to still be greater collaboration between businesses and education institutions to develop the right kind of people for the jobs being created.

“It is about producing people who are able to adapt as we don’t necessarily know what the new technology will be. It’s about producing ambitious, curious, innovative people that can contribute to the changing technology,” Hope explains.

Graduates need to not only be technically savvy but also innovators and risk takers to embrace the new digital world he argues. While for Brooks-Pearce it is about being rounded and possessing the kind of soft skills that may not be taught as part of a computer science degree:

“We see a lot of applications come through that are technically very good but don’t have the behavioural skills, things like commercial skills to be able to be successful in our role straight away. We need some more work done developing those skills and building more relationships with businesses and universities, so people can really see what opportunities are there and gain some more skills and experience and really work together to fill those gaps.”

So the idea of a Northern Powerhouse is viable and with cities such as Manchester growing and creating jobs the opportunities are there, but for Government challenges providing the talent needed to fill these new jobs still remains. But what about the cities themselves?  Do they need to foster growth amongst themselves, well Hope argues that we cannot slip back into old geographical rivalries but learn to work together:

“There is that old mentality there that we are rivals when what we should be thinking about is the region competing at a global level. we shouldn’t necessarily be thinking about competing against our neighbouring cities really we should be working together to make a bigger North.”