On 25 May, the CBI in partnership with Virgin Media O2 Business, hosted its second regional roadshow event.
Facilitated by Tortoise Media Studios, Hashi Mohamed, Contributing Editor at Tortoise Media was joined by businesses to discuss whether clusters are a good solution to optimising the skills needed for regional and national growth.
Leading business figures from the South West shared their insights on what is needed, noting that high value skills are critical to business success and the lynchpin of dynamic clusters. Human capital, talent development and ambitious leadership and management are essential for firms to thrive in a competitive ecosystem. This is equally underpinned by the importance of close collaboration between business and education providers in building a vibrant talent pool for jobs of the future and a long term perspective for places to succeed.
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In the second in our 'Clusters Think In' series, Hashi Mohammed, Contributing Editor at Tortoise Media is joined by the Virgin Media O2 Business’s Head of Public Sector, Martyn McFadyen, to discuss how economic clusters can help optimise the skills needed to drive regional and national growth in every part of the UK.
In this episode we discuss how skills is critical to business success and the lynchpin of dynamic clusters, the importance of close collaboration between firms and education providers in building a vibrant talent pool for jobs of the future and how leadership matters for places to succeed. Martyn also talks about the importance of digital inclusion and the role business can play in empowering the workforce to develop the digital skills needed which are increasingly required in every part of the economy.
'Clusters Think In' is a podcast series included as part of the CBI's series of Thriving Regions events. Listen and subscribe to the series here.
Event readout written by Hashi Mohamed, Editor at Tortoise
Clusters Think In: Are clusters a good solution to optimising the skills needed for regional and national growth?
On 25 May 2022, the CBI’s national clusters roadshow came to Cheltenham, the second destination of our high-level ThinkIns - in partnership with Virgin Media O2 Business.
Hosted by Kohler Mira Ltd, a number of industry leaders from tech, manufacturing, renewables, cyber and academia, based in the South West Region, gathered to discuss how clusters could optimise the skills needed for regional and national growth.
Skills are an essential part of a cluster’s success. But, how are businesses currently identifying, articulating and investing in skills to drive growth? And, are they working collaboratively to achieve this? In this second event, we explored how business and stakeholders could work in partnership together to help take the UK’s current economic clusters from good to great.
The discussion began by reflecting on the 100 year legacy of Kohler Mira Ltd - an appliances, plumbing and electronic manufacturing company which, through its local employment initiatives, has become part of the social fabric of the area, Craig Baker, Managing Director, Kohler Mira, explained. They have upskilled generations of workers in a breadth of careers, from plumbing and engineering, to technology, project management and marketing.
It is, as Martin McFadyen, Head of Public Sector, Virgin Media O2 Business, introduced at the start of the ThinkIn, an anchor institution. These institutions, with established and respected legacies and leaders, have important roles to play locally and as part of the success of regional clusters. He highlighted:
“Many organisations are under-resourced or under-represented when it comes to digital skills, and the understanding of how digital can support their organisation moving forward,” said Martin McFayden, leading the group to consider the reasons as to why digital upskilling is lagging so far behind in many industries."
Better still if they work in collaboration, particularly when it comes to the skills debate. Building links with educational institutions and the local authority, as Kohler Mira and other businesses around the table had done, at least ensures better awareness of job opportunities for school-leavers and job-seekers, and at best results in the growth of specific programmes to upskill the workforce.
Reid Derby, Director of Strategy and Community Engagement at CyNam (Cyber Cheltenham), noted that a strong, place-based network of organisations has been key to driving skills development in the area:
“[CyNam] has been really fundamental to help work across local government, central government, large tech companies, and work on things like skills. So we don’t wait for government to act, we sort of take the initiative and then we build relationships with various government departments, and industry and academia…We’ve been quite forward leaning, particularly looking at cyber skills,” Mr. Derby said.
And it is these digital skills which most attendees had identified as being in high demand, both from employers and from employees. A rapid change which some felt educational institutions and industry are not fully prepared for, nor investing in. As Asif Rehmanwala, CEO of Stroud-based renewable energy company Ecotricity, reflected:
“We have gone through a generation of 10-15 years of industry evolving, emerging really quickly, digital being a big part of that, and the education system and development of people into employment has not been ready for that.”
Ben Woods, Head of Regional Development, University of Bath, challenged this assumption, arguing that academic institutions were working hard to diversify the skills taught, but struggled to make considerable changes in the face of government regulations. “We’re collaborating hugely with industry and trying to be as responsible as we can as educators” he said, “but actually there’s quite a lot of regulation about education that actually makes it difficult for education institutions to pivot at speed.”
There is also the labour market to consider, which attendees agreed was challenging for employers looking to recruit the right talent, the right individuals with the right skills, unhindered by work permit issues. Clusters could provide a solution here, and have proven to do so where large respected brands have established themselves and attracted and incentivised employees to relocate. Bio-cities in Nottingham and Glasgow were both referenced as examples.
Indeed, it was clear throughout the conversation that place played a significant role in a cluster's success, and often influenced which skills were prioritised for investment and development. GCHQ in Cheltenham was cited as a specific example, based there for 60 years, and currently driving investment in a cyber first skills initiative to encourage the development of a talent pipeline, engaging with students and local apprentices to showcase different career options.
Princess Yachts too, based in Plymouth, an area with a rich marine history, has looked to foster traditional ship-building carpentry skills they need by investing in an apprenticeship carpentry course with a local college.
“Sometimes we need to remember an area’s history and heritage, and to build a cluster you need to build on what you’ve already got,” said Adrian Bratt, General Counsel and External Affairs Director at Princess Yachts.
Coming away from the conversation, and reflecting back on the initial question - are clusters a good solution to optimising skills needed for regional and national growth? - in short, yes. Targeted investment and collaboration by local businesses can bolster the specialist skills and trade of a local area - from cyber or boat building to renewable energy, as in the case of the South West. And to really drive growth, there are key determining factors that can ensure a cluster’s success:
- Anchor institutions - Kohler Mira and GCHQ, being a great local examples
- Greater partner collaboration - particularly between industry and academic institutions, in terms of the skills agenda, and sometimes ahead of government policy
- Strong leadership / figurehead organisations - attracting employees to relocate to an area and further cluster growth, as with the Bio-cities
- And, storytelling and a strong place narrative - often built over generations and associated with specific industries and skill specialisms, such as cyber or carpentry, in the case of the South West.
We will continue to reflect and assess the success factors as we continue the roadshow in Glasgow, where we’ll be considering: How can commercial success be achieved in every region and nation through innovation partnerships?
Why we can’t build clusters without investing in digital skills
Read a blog from Martin McFadyen, Head of Public Sector, Virgin Media O2 Business, on why digital skills are essential for clusters.
Find out about our event partners, Virgin Media O2 Business
Virgin Media Business and O2 Business have joined forces to reimagine connectivity – as a digital partner that helps UK organisations rise to the challenge of the new working dynamic between companies, consumers and their communities.
Virgin Media O2 Business plays a leading role in supporting the public sector and businesses of all sizes to achieve more, from small and medium organisations right up to large enterprise and wholesale partners. This includes offering a variety of managed connectivity services and flexible working capabilities, security, data insight, 5G private networks and cloud solutions, as well as wholesale services to other operators and partners.
Virgin Media O2 Business is committed to using the power of connectivity to share more with communities across the UK, taking action to close the digital divide and helping to build an inclusive, resilient, and low carbon economy.
For more cluster resources visit the CBI's Clusters Playbook.