Local talent is being lost up the M5
A wealth of young talent is being lost up the M5 and more needs to be done to retain graduates in the South West, business leaders have warned.
Perceptions that the region is a poor place to work with no obvious ladders of progression and better career opportunities elsewhere are the key issues, they say.
The warning came as a national report was released this month stating that three quarters of British businesses believe a skills crisis will hit the UK in the next three years. According to the survey by the Prince’s Trust and HSBC, 40 per cent were experiencing a skills gap already and half were finding it hard to fill vacancies.
As preparations get underway for graduation celebrations across the region, three local businessmen, energy broker Alastair Carnegie, theatre boss Adrian Vinken and dairy farmer Bill Clarke, talked to the Western Morning News about the issues of retaining skills and talent here within the South West.
Alastair Carnegie, managing director of Total Energy Solutions based in Stoke Climsland, said: “There is a perception that there are greener pastures up the M5.
“I can understand the attraction for some youngsters wanting to work outside the county but many do not realise the great, innovative businesses we have right here in the South West.
“There are plenty of students who would like to stay in Cornwall and many companies that want to employ them. It is an issue of how they engage with each other - there is a lack of link up.”
Adrian Vinken, chief executive of Plymouth’s prestigious Theatre Royal, said that the region had a large number of higher educational institutions producing quality graduates each year - the problem was retaining them.
He said: “There are areas of specialism that come out of those institutions where there is no obvious ladder of progression for them to stay. In order to pursue the career of their choice they have to leave.
“The creative industry is one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy at the moment and there is great potential, but most of the graduates leave as they are unable to find employment. The obvious place to go is up the M5.”
Bill Clarke, owner of Lostwithiel-based Trewithen Dairy, believes that the agricultural and food industries are traditionally portrayed as places you work if you failed at school.
He added: “There’s a perception among youngsters that the career opportunities in agriculture and food are relatively poor, and that’s a view largely as a result of bad public relations from both industries.
“Every time you stuck a microphone in front of a farmer he would do his upmost to say it is grim, not profitable, needs better prices, we are victims of bullying from supermarkets or whatever, and that has created negative PR. The food processing industry is not much better.
“Add to that teachers having a traditional view of the agriculture and food industries as being places to work if they fail, that creates a perception that they are poor places to work. Any child who has got a prospect of getting A-C grades at GCSE are inclined to look outside the county for the best career opportunities.”
Encouraging businesses to communicate more readily with younger generations as to what is on offer within the Westcountry is a great step.
Mr Carnegie says mentoring provides a vital link up between the educational and business communities. Twice a month he mentors students at local colleges and universities about skills they need in the workplace.
He said: “I feel that universities and colleges do not have a strong enough relationship with the SME market and we need to bridge that gap. I think we are taking steps in the right direction with a range of mentoring schemes but we need a much closer working relationship between schools, colleges, universities and local businesses.
“By building relationships we can better inform students of what businesses expect from them. It is about being creative. Students take it on board much better if a businessman comes in to discuss it with them. They can then see what it is actually like in the workplace. It is a communication issue as much as anything else.”
Mr Vinken said that with around 10,000 students graduating each year in the South West, retention levels are never going to be high. He added: “Lets be realistic about it, we have to accept that we are not going to be able to keep all that talent local, there is just not the jobs for all of them. What is important is that where we develop specialisms such as marine biology and in the creative industry, that we are able to retain the smartest to develop world-renowned facilities that we can excel in.”
Changing perceptions has been a battle for the food and agricultural industries over the years, said Mr Clarke adding: “Agriculture had a really bad year in 2003/03 when the number of students going into higher education in agricultural colleges went down to practically zero.
“The image of such industries has improved a great deal fortunately, but we’ve still got a long way to go. The way the industry communicates has improved out of all proportions and an awful lot of positive messages are coming out now, which is a refreshing change.”
A member of Lostwithiel Rotary, Mr Clarke takes part in open days where local schoolchildren are invited to speak to people working in the industry.
He said: “I did a presentation about the fantastic career opportunities and diverse jobs available within the industry from management to marketing, technical to engineering, and explained the different salary levels. It made a terrific impact.
“People leaving school should look at the huge resources around them in the food industry. It’s a £2billion industry with some fantastic employers.
“They’ll learn about communication, working with other people, using technology and IT, dealing with customers - we have got every skill in the food industry right here.”
Meanwhile, lower wages and less government spending in the region doesn’t help but it has to be put into perspective. Mr Clarke said: “Wages down here are lower, but so is the cost of living. If you go to the middle of London, for every £10 you earn, £8 is taken.”
Mr Vinken added: “There is a gradient that stretches from London to Swindon and Bristol and the lower down you go, the lower the average earnings. For us, that can lead to difficulty in recruiting into the industry – our competitors are national and international theatres. When we bring in senior levels of expertise such as technical and marketing, we have to pay more for those kind of skills than we would in other areas.”
Mr Vinken said that 82% of all public investment and 80% of giving and sponsorship in arts and culture is spent within the M25 corridor, where 15% of the population lives. “There is huge inequality in the way in which public sector resources and finance are made available here compared to London and the South East.
He added: “Our strongest card is the quality of life people can enjoy while working here along with the environmental factor. It’s unparalleled.
“Here in Plymouth you have a world-class waterfront less than quarter of an hour’s drive to the city centre along with fantastic surfing beaches and sailing facilities 20 minutes out from the centre, also national and international cultural facilities, great restaurants and the Royal William Yard development.
“In the past Plymouth has failed to market its great strengths. We have under performed and we have hidden the city’s assets under a bushel. It is encouraging that in the last few years with Destination Plymouth, bidding for City of Culture, being branded Britain’s Ocean City and the Mayflower 2020 increasing links, we are becoming stronger at that and starting to have a coherent story to tell. As that starts to permeate nationally, that gives us a stronger card to retain talent.
“We have to play our strengths in quality of life and environment and use that to grow the economy. When you attract another 50,000 people down here creating 20,000 more jobs, then you start to get a different dynamic going.
“I think we are very clear on where we need to go - the USP we have of quality of life is remarkable.”