Cumbria faces a perfect storm of an ageing workforce and rising demand for skilled workers.
The county’s Local Enterprise Partnership estimates that 66,500 jobs will need to be filled by 2021 to replace people who retire or leave the county.
Add another 6,500 jobs created by economic growth, and 7,300 if the Moorside nuclear power station project gets off the ground, and we could be talking about 80,300 jobs to be filled.
Rob Johnston, Chief Executive of Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, warned: “Cumbria is not ready to meet this challenge. Only 24,000 young people due to enter the labour market by 2021, leaving a shortfall of 56,300.
“We have a ‘super-ageing population’ as people come to the county to retire. Projections show that one-in-four will be over 65 by 2020.”
Brexit adds a layer of uncertainty.
There are at least 10,000 migrant workers in Cumbria and any restrictions on bringing in migrants after Brexit is likely to cause a major headache for the hospitality and food sectors, which depend heavily on EU workers.
Rob said: “It’s clear that the county needs more residents of working age, and that means we need to invest in infrastructure to support population growth.
“Affordable housing for working-age families is at the heart of this. Lack of it is a major issue in South Lakeland and Eden, in particular, and it’s no coincidence that these areas have the most severe labour shortages.
“In South Lakeland, only 0.6% of the workforce is claiming unemployment benefits, and in Eden it is only 0.8%. These are amongst the lowest claimant count rates in the UK.”
He added: “There are house-building programmes coming through, such as St Cuthbert’s Garden Village, which should see 10,000 homes built on the southern outskirts of Carlisle,
“But we also need to provide schools, shops and health services to meet the needs of a growing population.
“And we believe that better road and rail links are absolutely key to making the Cumbrian labour market more efficient.
“If you improve the A590 between Barrow and Kendal, and the A595 between Sellafield and Carlisle, you unlock opportunity by shrinking journey times and enlarging travel-to-work and travel-to-learn areas.
“You allow people in areas of higher unemployment to access jobs and training opportunities in areas where they are plentiful.”
Cumbria Chamber of Commerce is conducting a survey of businesses’ views on transport issues in an attempt to influence government policy and boost investment in the county’s transport infrastructure.
More than 100 businesses have responded already. If you haven’t yet, click click here to complete the survey.
Rob said: “We also need to look at ways of encouraging older workers to stay in employment rather than take early retirement.
“That might require employers to be more flexible, allowing people who no longer want to work full time to move to part-time employment.”
Then there is the question of skills.
The Local Enterprise Partnership says that 41% of the vacancies to be created by 2021 will be for skilled workers at Level 4 or above. At present, only 28% of our working age population is qualified to Level 4.
The problem isn’t confined to Cumbria.
The British Chambers of Commerce’s Quarterly Economic Survey of 7,000 businesses highlights exactly how big a problem.
The latest survey, published in January, found that 71% of service businesses that were trying to recruit struggled to find the staff with the right skills.
In the North West, which includes Cumbria, the proportion was 77%.
The British Chambers says that skills shortages are now at “critical levels”.
It argues that the best way to close the skills gap is to ease upfront business costs to help firms recruit and train staff, and deliver a future immigration regime that supports the needs of the UK economy.
Rob said: “Government policy has started to catch up with the emphasis moving from job creation to boosting productivity, and a greater emphasis on vocational qualifications such as the new T-levels, which are designed to give technical qualifications the same status and rigour as a degree.
“Investing in skills works. 80% of businesses that invest in apprenticeships report an increase in staff retention and 92% of employers say that having apprentices leads to a more motivated and satisfied workforce.”
SMEs that invest in training are more profitable.
The 25% that spend most on training are seven times more profitable, on average, than the 25% that spend least.
Rob added: “Labour and skills shortages are set to be the biggest potential drag anchor on business in 2018, since ultimately it is people that make businesses work.
“Businesses must do more – by training and investing wherever possible in people – but government must also give firms the confidence to put their livelihoods on the line and go for growth.
“The Chamber can help here. Our Profiting Through Skills campaign offers free training to SMEs that want to upskill their workers or recruit apprentices.
“I’d urge businesses to take advantage. Time is of the essence though – this programme will close in March.”
To learn more about the free training on offer, call Cumbria Business Growth Hub today on 0844 257 84 50.
A specialist adviser will carry out a review of your training needs and opportunities to identify where improved skills could help.
They pass the assessment to an experienced training provider, or providers, who contacts you to arrange training programmes funded through the scheme and elsewhere. Training is available for new and existing staff.
This support is available through the Employees Support in Skills project, launched last year. The project is funded by the European Social Fund via the Education & Skills Funding Agency and supported by Cumbria LEP.
Other partners in the project include Carlisle, Furness, Kendal and Lakes Colleges, the University of Cumbria, Newton Rigg, Gen2 and SP Training.
The Employee Support in Skills project is receiving up to £8.5m of funding from the European Social Fund (ESF) as part of the 2014-2020 European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme in England. The Department for Work and Pensions is the Managing Authority for the England ESF programme. Established by the European Union ESF funds help local areas stimulate their economic development by investing in projects which will support innovation, businesses, skills development, job creation, social inclusion and local community regenerations. For more information click here.