Business bidding for government cash to reduce youth unemployment and boost economy in Wisbech and surrounding area

A family-run business is hoping to secure a slice of �50m government funding to launch a training and skills centre to help hundreds of unemployed youngsters get into work and boost the economy in the Fens.

The government has made the funds available for businesses across the country to bid for to run apprenticeship schemes and cut the number of young jobless.

Foster Property Maintenance worked with Fenland District Council and the College of West Anglia to submit a bid for �1m to launch the centre at Foster Business Park, Wisbech, and if successful, the firm will look to open other centres around East Anglia, including Norwich.

The centre will focus on improving the 'employability skills' of people living in Wisbech and surrounding area as well as training people in low-level construction and renewable energy installation.

People will also be able to pick up job application, interview, and communication skills, attend confidence building sessions and receive literacy and numeracy training at the centre.

The idea is the brainchild of John Foster, founder of the Wisbech-based firm who hopes 600 people will receive training and 24 apprentices will placed in businesses around the area in the first two years.

He said: 'As a businessman born and bred in Wisbech I have a responsibility to try and make a positive difference to the local community.

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'There's a pool of local unemployed people that need assistance in gaining skills to help them lead a better life and in turn improve the local economy.

'If we all try and do something, no matter how big or small, to help improve our local area we can achieve great things'.

It is hoped �1m of government cash for the project will be approved next month and Mr Foster believes the training and skills centre could be up-and-running by September.

'We have a firm belief that our vision will appeal to numerous stakeholders,' he continued.

'Several businesses in the area have a need to 'upskill' their workforce and uncover new, untapped talent to help their businesses thrive.

'I urge anybody willing to support our vision to get in touch to explore some form of collaboration, working together will make our dream stronger, helping it become a reality.'

Mr Foster's son David added: 'This has been a life-long dream for my dad. He is passionate about this area and he wants to leave a legacy where he was born and bred.

'There has been quite a lot of bad press about Fenland and Wisbech recently and my dad hopes this centre will go some way to change this.

'We are hoping at least 600 people will have some form of training at the centre in the first two years. We imagine the vast majority of these people will be school leavers.

'If and when we get funding, we will also start to look to launch similar projects in Norwich and other areas across the region.

'We will be putting in �300,000 into the project if the government funding comes through so it is a big commitment from us. It is a big project but it is something we are very excited about.'

Several organisations ranging from Cambridgeshire Chamber of Commerce, Great Cambridge Greater Peterborough LEP, Jobcentre Plus and numerous prominent business owners in the Fenland area have voiced strong support for the visionary project.

Amy Wilson, economic development officer at Fenland District Council, said: 'This type of project is desperately needed in Fenland and I am confident that [Foster's] strong vision and the significant local support will make this project a great success.'

Councillor Chris Seaton, deputy leader of Fenland District Council, added: 'We want to create an area where the diverse communities and businesses offer all people the chance to reach their full potential and contribute to society.

'Improving skills levels is one of the most important aspects of improving our local economy and the quality of life for Fenland residents.

'We would be delighted to see this model of skills delivery set up in the construction sector and we will work as part of a team to deliver this project if the bid is successful.'

Ian Alford is the manager of the Fenland partnership which is a partnership of the four secondary schools in the district and the College of West Anglia.

He said during his time in his role, there have been 'increasing problems, to high numbers of young people leaving school lacking the skills and attitudes to move successfully into work.

'A skills centre on the Foster site would offer young people practical learning opportunities and a chance to interact and make links with businesses,' he added.

'It also supports are ambitions to increase local apprentice numbers and the preparation and experience offered by the centre may also help improve apprentice retention rates.'

Dr Andy Wood, chairman of New Anglia LEP, and Neville Reyner, chairman of Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough LEP, have also both backed the project.

In a joint statement, they said: 'The improvement of skills for employment is a central issue for both [partnerships], and we see the Foster Skills Centre as part of the overall picture required to help us to achieve this goal.

'Starting in Fenland, but with visions to expand across East Anglia, the centre would provide training and skills service to help increase employability skills across Fenland, and in turn help to growth the local economy.'

John Bridge, chief executive of Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce, is excited about the project's potential.

Mr Bridge said: '[We have] been aware of a need to address skills shortages and inequalities in Fenland in recent years.

'The very high proportion of micro and small enterprises makes it difficult for many employers to find the right people to develop and grow their businesses.

'We know that many have avoided taking the risk of recruiting a new employee as they feel they are unable to invest the necessary time and money required in finding and training someone suitable.

'In recent years there has been strong local recognition of skills issues among public, private and third sector bodies and a real sense of collective will to make a difference.

'This project's aims fit what local people want to see and will provide some desperately-needed reassurance to businesses in the construction and trade sectors that the people they recruit from this programme have the basic knowledge, skills and attitudes to make them good employees.'

Meanwhile Keith Smith, director of the Ferry Project, a charity that supports single homeless people in Fenland, and Jaqui Fairfax, from Commercial Utlity Brokers, have also backed the bid.

Ms Fairfax said: 'Our business has grown rapidly over the last few years and we find ourselves on an almost continuous recruitment drive which has its own challenges – especially in Fenland where there is a shortage of skills across the board.

'A vast number of the people we interview for vacancies have very few 'employability skills'. If the Foster Skills Centre provided a training service preparing potential interviewees to become ready for work by coaching them on a range of employability skills, I can see benefits for us and potentially help ou business to continue growing.'

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