Inspiring, encouraging and developing the next generation of young skilled workers across the north and north-east is crucial – but doesn’t come without its challenges.
As sectors of the business community look to get back on their feet in the wake of the pandemic, there’s still a variety of hurdles to get over.
The north-east is facing a different recruitment environment post-Covid and there’s worries surrounding mental health issues for young people as they think about what the future holds for them career wise.
To discuss this, I was joined by a trio of experts in the subject to get their take on the current situation and hear how to make sure training required to deliver the required sills stays strong.
Mary Holland, director for Developing the Young Workforce North-east (DYW-NE), Sarah Baxter, programme manager for DYM Moray and John Cairns, community benefits advisor for Balfour Beatty North of Scotland, were all supposed to be enjoying a lunch while speaking about the issues.
But instead we opted for a virtual meeting – which has fast become quite the normal.
Positive career opportunities for young people
Developing the Young Workforce aims to bridge the gap between employers and educators to help ensure positive career opportunities for young people.
The programme focuses on implementing employer engagement which increases pupils’ career awareness, skills development and career opportunities.
It was established six years ago to spearhead the Scottish Government’s youth employment strategy and launched in the wake of a commission, which was chaired by Sir Ian Wood, whose aim was to build better relationships between industry, schools and colleges.
Ms Holland believes a big positive for DYW is the Young Person’s Guarantee, which was launched in September by the Scottish Government and aims to give all young people the chance for a positive destination through the opportunity of a job, apprenticeship, further education, training or volunteering.
One of the first recommendations from the guarantee was that DYW should increase the number of staff working in regional groups and have a coordinator in every secondary school in Scotland.
During the past six to nine months, Ms Holland has gone from having a team of four to 18, with 14 coordinators now working in schools across the city and shire. And the Moray team has doubled.
She said: “The Young Person’s Guarantee allows us to accelerate the work we’ve been doing over the last seven years and work with more employers and encourage other employers to get involved.
“There’s been a lot of positive to come out of it all but not underestimating it’s been a real challenge not being able to work in schools.”
Statistics published by Skills Development Scotland (SDS), for 2019-20, showed Aberdeen City had the biggest fall in the number of school leavers going into work, down 11.2% and the Shire was down 6.6%.
Ms Holland said: “The statistics reflect the need for that action to be taken.
“Also what the figures showed is there’s more young people staying on at school so there’s going to be a delayed impact from this summer’s school leavers and next year’s.
“There’s going to be more of them and therefor more of a need for us to provide and showcase the pathways and opportunities into the different key sectors here in the north-east including construction but also digital, food and drink, tourism and hospitality.”
Strong need for a skilled workforce
Mr Cairns strongly believes the need for a skilled workforce hasn’t gone away and this is echoed by the fact there’s currently 500 job vacancies on the Balfour Beatty website.
Infrastructure giant Balfour Beatty has already pledged its support to the YPG and Mr Cairns believes it’s important that as many construction companies “as possible” sign up.
“We are trying to offer a variety of supports, be it work placements or site visits when it returns to normal. There’s a whole variety of activities we need to complete as a business but we are trying our best to fly the flag for the industry.”
He added: “We still need people and new talent. We want to be engaging with the best talent and we try to be as active as we can.
“One of the most enjoyable parts of my job before lockdown was going out to schools and delivering career inspiration events in schools, colleges and universities, letting kids get hands on with some of our tech and trying to inspire them about their future careers.
“We’ve obviously had to change that completely during the past 16 months. We’re having to engage people virtually now through Teams and Zoom. We’ve managed to change but still give young people that experience and taster of the world of work.
“Doing things virutally does have its benefit. We did a broadcast from one of our projects in Philadelphia last year where pupils from Aberdeenshire schools were able to ask questions to project managers.
“Although it’s been challenging, it’s caused us to be even more creative and come up with new ways of engaging young people and inspiring them to think about construction and engineering.”
In Moray, Ms Baxter and her team have also continued to encourage strong links with businesses and is confident the YPG can be achieved within the two-year timescale.
She said: “We have still engaged with businesses and supported them as much as possible if they are looking to recruit or help with something else.
“Despite Covid, we have met one-to-one with over 250 businesses in Moray which is amazing given the circumstances.
“We are always looking to get new businesses on board which inspire young people to take an entrepreneurial route.”
Working to change the feeling of hopelessness
The word “hopefulness” was one that was discussed by our panel and it’s one that Ms Holland and Ms Baxter are both working hard to turn around when it comes to the mindset of some young people.
Ms Holland said: “We are doing a joint project between the two regional groups, called DYW Positive Futures, where we are changing the narrative. Covid, Brexit, and the downturn in oil and gas has been one of hopelessness for some.
“We’ve had feedback from schools and employers that students don’t see where the future opportunities come from. But in reality there’s lots of opportunities and we are working to turn it round.
“The mental health on young people and the impact is huge and we fully support all the work that’s going on.
“Big benefit of us having the new co-ordinators is they can get round the table with guidance teachers and advisors who identify young people who are struggling and at risk of not having a positive destination.
“It’s allowing us to help where it’s most needed. We can help facilitate and support the employers to see it’s still a talented and skilled person.
“We are trying to change the narrative of hopelessness.”
Ms Baxter added: “The Moray employer recruitment incentive is targeting young people who need it most. Funded from the YPG, it focusses on those with barriers to work and different challenges including disabilities.
“We have a survey out at the moment through Positive Futures which is trying to address the hopelessness agenda and how they are feeling. From that we can identify where we need to pull our resources.”
Support from training and development schemes
Mr Cairns highlighted a number of national initiatives which he hopes will help encourage training and development including the UK Government Kickstart Fund, and the work of the Scottish Government SDS body.
When asked about the importance of recruiting for the future and if the north-east faces different challenges, he said: “It’s been highly competitive attracting young people into your industry in the north-east because of the pull of oil and gas and the potential salaries.
“But you’ll have young people now that are thinking about longer term futures and there’s obviously a bit of uncertainty around oil and gas.
“That’s our job to get out in front of young people and have them think about construction as a long term and viable option.
“There’s huge opportunities in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire. Tourism, hospitality, oil and gas and we must all take the challenge to raise our game.”
DYW works closely with the the Aberdeen City & Shire Hotel Association and recently held an event with Opportunity North East in a bid to highlight opportunities within the food and drink sector.
Ms Baxter highlighted the importance of inspiring young people by having role models in front of young people.
She said: “We’ve got various different business leaders and directors across Moray that have been engaging.
“We have a lot of young people leaving Moray to go onto higher or further education so we want to retain the talent as much as possible for our businesses to grow and prosper and get young people to focus what’s on their doorstep, get people who have worked their way up in front of young people.
“We’ve only got 10 large businesses in Moray so we work with each of them very closely including the Moray Council.
“A total of 99.9 % are micro to medium businesses across the region. In Aberdeen, the businesses are much larger so we have to work harder to pull on the smaller organisations.”
Technology and digital skills to be encouraged
There’s no doubt that young people nowadays can be heavily influenced by social media and YouTube in particular seems to be growing ever more popular.
Mr Cairns: “Every company will be crying out for digital content creators in one way or another.
“We talk about building information programmes a lot and 3-D project planning. We need young people who have got that interest in working in a digital environment. Whether that’s gaming or YouTube. Everyone needs digital skills just now.”