As one of the regions hardest hit by COVID-19, Lancashire is taking steps to ensure its communities emerge better prepared for future challenges, writes Stephen Young
The transformation we have seen in the employment and economic landscape of the UK and the world is staggering – and unthinkable just a few short months ago. Since January, as the Chinese National Health Commission was still describing COVID-19 as ‘preventable and controllable’, we have moved through a period of economic downturn the likes of which this county has never seen in peace time before.
In the period since the Government announced its lockdown on 23 March, the UK economy is expected to have contracted by between 20%-25%, thus wiping out over 18 years of growth. This is the worst performance of any county in the developed world.
Now, facing the potential of a deep and biting recession, the challenges around protecting employment and enhancing skills particularly among 16-24-year-olds, feel as numerous as they do challenging.
The impact of this crisis on the economy for places like Lancashire and the potential unemployment that may follow, are by no means unique but highly worrying nevertheless. County-wide 170,000 of Lancashire’s workforce have been furloughed and are now at particularly high risk of redundancy. This is compounded by Lancashire’s high instance of vulnerable employment sectors, such as hospitality, tourism and advance manufacturing, particularly aerospace.
When laid on top of areas of high deprivation which are already suffering extensive underlying economic challenges – with benefit claimant rates in these areas currently ballooning to a massive 5.3% above the county average – the need for a decisive and far-reaching response, both locally nationally, has never been more relevant.
At the county level, the partnerships for skills transition are both well established and effective, so it is little surprise the response to date has been both responsive and co-ordinated. Encompassing a range of partners from the private and public sectors and driven through the Lancashire Skill and Employment Hub, a range of innovations and projects have stepped up to address the challenge.
Particularly eye catching has been the launch of ‘Skills Swap’ which has formed a key plank of our #AskforHelp campaign. This enables businesses to both request the skills they require and offer skills which are surplus.
One obvious candidate for skills swap from the Lancashire region is the aerospace industry which is currently struggling and seeking to downsize while new and emerging sectors, such as renewable energy, are surging and actively seeking staff with similar skills profiles to those leaving the aerospace sector.
For the staff themselves facing redundancy, unemployment or furlough, we have developed and launched a one-stop website that brings together over 50 key organisations from across Lancashire to provide support and assistance. It covers areas of advice from support around retraining and reskilling, job hunting or starting a small business.
Consistent throughout all the advice and support we are providing, particularly among our disadvantaged communities, has been around digital awareness. If nothing else, our communities must be able to emerge from the COVID crisis more digitally aware, enabled and connected than has ever been the case in the past.
While these areas of support continue to be productive and are already starting to show positive signs of traction, the single biggest area of concern remains among the younger generation who, due to a perfect storm of factors, look likely to be hit the hardest.
Challenges such as the transition of young people post education brought on by a prolonged summer period, the largest increase in Universal Credit claimants impacting on 16-24-year-olds and young people far more likely to be furloughed than older colleagues has led to many – including the UN Secretary General António Guterres – to warn of a lost generation, stifled by a lack of participation opportunities.
Recognising this risk, Lancashire CC and our partners have developed the Lancashire Work-Based Learning Forum. Its purpose has been centred on the perennial challenge of tracking and supporting the thousands of Lancashire school and college leavers’ transition into further or higher education, employment or training – a process made more difficult than normal following the abrupt and unplanned conclusion to the academic year.
We are also aware of the higher than normal attrition rate we may face this year with young people dropping out part way through their training or educational courses, given the extensive amount or ad-hoc or undelivered content due to lockdown.
Lancashire is doing all it can to address the unprecedented challenges it faces around skills transition and jobs protection, but given the scale of the challenge it is clear central Government support remains essential if any meaningful impact is to be made.
The Prime Minister’s New Deal announcement, followed by Rishi Sunak’s emergency budget with the promises of building back ‘better and bolder’ as well as ‘doubling down on levelling up’, are positive developments.
The Government’s attempts to invest in skills and protect jobs, particularly among young people, seemed a step in the right direction. But the reality facing our young people is stark. Apprenticeships have fallen by 40% since 2015 to fewer than 400,000 nationally; one third of all 18-24-year-olds have lost their job or are furloughed; and a badly broken apprenticeship levy scheme is in major need of reform.
Combined with the already heavily distressed companies being expected to support or create employment opportunities for young people for what is a modest payment, the challenges ahead are major and many concerns are yet to be addressed.
Stephen Young is executive director of growth, environment, transport and community services at Lancashire CC