Is the skills shortage getting better?

It has long been said a business is only as good as its people. At a time of record unemployment, it should be a buyers' market for businesses looking to recruit.

Yet a British Chamber of Commerce (BCC) report out today highlights what has been said for a number of years – that many Norfolk employers are still struggling to find people with the right skills.

Caroline Williams, chief executive of the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, said the BCC survey, which included Norfolk Chamber members' results, proved local companies continue to invest in their workforce, and they still want to take on staff and expand despite a difficult economic climate.

However, the results also confirm that many firms looking to recruit are restricted by the poor skills available within the local labour pool.

But is anyone listening? With public sector cuts and rising tuition fees, is it going to get any better?

Mrs Williams acknowledged that the Chamber was working with Norfolk County Council to create the Skill Up Norfolk training portal, which now has 3,000 courses provided by 350 providers.

One of the main sectors which has previously talked of a skills shortage is the energy sector. With huge optimism about the potential growth of the industry and the designation of a energy targeted enterprise zone, it could create thousands of jobs in the coming years.

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George Morrison, managing director of Norwich-based oil and gas industry supplier Aquaterra, said progress had been made with the new University of East Anglia's postgraduate engineering course set to start and plans for a bachelor's degree course in the pipeline. Traditionally people have had to travel further afield to get an engineering degree.

But he added there was more to be done and students needed a financial incentive to do courses such as engineering and physics.

'If we can use the education system to say that if you come out with an engineering degree you aren't likely to leave with a huge loan, more people would do engineering,' he said.

'If the skills are there, we have to find ways around it. We have been trying for years to get technical and analytical skills.

'We have opened offices in Aberdeen and we have been looking at putting a premises in Cambridge. We wouldn't be doing that if we could get the right people here,' he added.

Blair Ainslie, managing director of Yarmouth-based self-propelled jack-up vessels company Seajacks, said: 'A skilled workforce is essential if businesses in the region are to capitalise on the exciting opportunities that will appear in the energy sector in the years to come.

'At Seajacks, we are finding that apprenticeships are an excellent way to develop the skilled workforce we need to be successful.'

Chris Starkie, lead for the new local enterprise partnership (Lep) New Anglia, said: 'One of the more important things is having the right skills at the right time. The role of the Lep is to try and improve the relationship between the colleges and the business community.'

He said the University of East Anglia was in the Lep and a group had been formed with further and higher education colleges.

He also said the Skills for Energy programme with the East of England Energy Group (EEEGR) was looking at providing skills in the energy sector.

EEEGR executive director Celia Anderson, who is heading the project, said the region was unique in that not only had it recognised the challenges, but it was actually taking action to address them.

She said: 'We also recognise the difficulties that companies are having taking on apprenticeships.

'Many want to but have difficulty supporting someone through the full period of learning required. We need to find ways to help them. Telling them to take them on doesn't make it any easier for them to do so.'

Led by the energy industry, Skills For Energy is beginning the roll-out of the Skills Foundation Programme – a one year, college-based 'pre-apprenticeship' – to a number of colleges including Great Yarmouth College.

And she said the energy skills EPIS Centre would be built next year in either Great Yarmouth or Lowestoft.

Ann Steward, cabinet member for economic development at Norfolk County Council, was also optimistic.

She said the council and the Employment and Skills Board were working closely with the chamber to improve skills and the availability and quality of apprenticeships and training.

Schools were seeing a year on year improvement in GCSEs and the government-funded Skills Guarantee was free access to training to help improve basic or specific skills to those out of work.

She also said the council and the Employment and Skills Board were promoting apprenticeships.

But in West Norfolk there is still concern. Employment figures released on Tuesday revealed that West Norfolk had seen the biggest rise in youth unemployment from the same times last year, with an increase of 25pc.

Nick Daubney, leader of West Norfolk Council, said: 'I think you can go to almost any industry in the county and they will all tell you this is an issue. Now we've seen these [unemployment] figures it confirms all our worst fears. Nobody can say it's the government or the county council. We have all got to work together and make this better.'

He said that at a local level the council was going to work much harder and business was going to join in. 'It is not single organisation's problem. It is an issue for us all,' he said. 'There is no quick fix. We have all got to examine what we are doing ourselves and take these issues and get a grip on it and find a way forward.'

He said there had already been some results with the King's Lynn Academy.

Dick Palmer, principal of City College Norwich said: 'I want to see more creative approaches used that give young people meaningful work experience, whilst developing the employability and entrepreneurial skills that employers are looking for,' he said.

'At City College Norwich we are responding to this challenge through developments such as our new Enterprise Zone and by having entrepreneurs in residence based at the college.'

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