Skills in a coastal community – the relentless tide of supply side thinking

As a citizen and ratepaper I have just responded to my local council’s consultation for its draft corporate plan. Called Towards 2030, the plan is intended to provide the overarching framework for the wide range of activities that Scarborough Borough Council undertakes on behalf of its population of just over 100,000 people.

At the moment, the Council is interested in our response to the four broad, high-level aims that it proposes to pursue. A cynic would say these are ‘apple pie’ statements, which focus on people, place, prosperity and the Council itself – all four lined up under the ambitious vision of ‘a prosperous Borough, with a high quality of life for all’.

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I had plenty to say about all this, but what struck me was how far the section on prosperity focused on education and skills.This includes turning the Borough into ‘the most highly skilled coastal community by 2030’, a target that I would bet my coffin will never be met (and will probably be quietly forgotten by 2020).

Coastal communities across Britain are generally characterised by low skills levels, and their economies are often characterised by a heavy reliance on low wage and precarious forms of employment. As a result, government has announced a series of initiatives to help regenerate coastal areas, with a major focus on training places and apprenticeships.

All this is of course fine. The problem, though, is that improving the skills and aspirations of young people (and adult workers) may well be highly desirable, but it will not create a highly skilled population. Far more probably, well-educated and highly-motivated workers will immediately move elsewhere to realise their ambitions and use their skills – as indeed they already do from coastal towns like Whitby, Scarborough and Filey.

Scarborough Borough Council is hardly alone in focussing on skills supply as the panacea for all ills. I can see why local government might look at local labour markets and decide that the solution to low skills is to train and educate the young. And the Council has done well in some respects, for example in securing the provision of a higher education campus in the Borough, with Coventry University offering a broad range of degrees.

The problem is that to retain skilled and motivated workers means raising the demand for skills, by promoting types of employment that will use and reward those skills. And in turn that means interventions of some sort to help reshape the local economy and move it up the value chain. These interventions, whether government-led or business-led, will inevitably be of a kind that so far local and devolved governments in the UK have been most reluctant to pursue.

 

 

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6 thoughts on “Skills in a coastal community – the relentless tide of supply side thinking

  1. John, you’re absolutely right. The same lack of focus on stimulating and motivating demand is at the heart of why the advanced learner loans in England have not worked and why we have so many people in low pay – 5m, which is 1m more than we would have if we were at OECD average. We have to find ways to improve productivity through job design, better management and improving skills.

    • Yes, I completely agree that productivity is another important part of the mix, particularly if you are looking to move up the value chain. It is striking that workers in Germany work fewer hours than we do in the UK, yet produce significantly more overall. Successive governments have thought about emulating German productivity levels, but few policy makers have recommended adopting the conditions that make high German productivity possible (such as generous trade union recognition, high levels of consultation and worker representation on boards).

  2. I agree with your basic argument – that improving skills is no use unless there are the high-skilled jobs to go with them – but am left wanting to know what you think the interventions are that might ‘reshape the local economy and move it up the value chain’? You say local and devolved governments haven’t wanted to pursue them so far but not what you think they are! Enlighten me please 🙂

    • Fair point. I’ll blog separately about this issue in future, but of course there are different political approaches. Statist approaches will look to government intervention to secure a high skills mix, possibly modeled on approaches taken by some of the Scandinavian nations; free market approaches rest on the assumption that the market must be freed up to take its own course. In practice, UK governments fall between these two positions, and this may be why they find it easier to intervene in skills supply (which mainly involves young school leavers) rather than skills demand (which mainly involves employers and investors). But more on this anon.

  3. ‘Moving it up the the value chain’ is something which local people have thought about for a long period without doing much about it. ‘Promoting types of employment etc’ means attracting entrepreneurial people to want to live in Whitby.The town has a lot to offer, yachting facilities, sea sports, good Wifi, being the venue for national groups like the Goths and Folk groups. It has
    a music tradition. There are starter spaces on the East Side and in the industrial parks.
    The local government set-up at the moment does not fit our actual needs.Scarborough Borough is not a natural unit. It doesn’t have an identity of its own. We have seen the assets which Whitby once owned sold off to help running the Borough. Pushing Whitby’s need to attract industry might be seen to be harming Scarborough towns own industrial ambitions.
    Industry which needs transport is more likely to go to Scarborough Town and one notes that one of the proposed improvements is for the A64. In our modern age good transport is not necessary for a number of businesses which depend more on digital resources and these are just the kind of skilled work would allow future local students to enjoy our local advantages and attract other young people here.
    At the moment Whitby attracts retired people which pushes up house prices for our existing lowly paid workers and loses its own young who see no future at home however much they might like to stay.

  4. Pingback: Skills and the regeneration of coastal communities | thelearningprofessor

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