Shoosmiths' Simon Boss talks the Skills Gap & Social Mobility at New Statesman's Regional Development Conference
The success of the levelling up strategy rests on fostering skilled local communities and workforces with high levels of educational attainment and entrepreneurialism. This, in turn, means that policymakers and industry must address the stark regional inequalities that have been brought to the fore during the pandemic. But how can levelling up drive reductions in health inequalities and promote better jobs, high literacy rates and better qualifications? Do we need more emphasis on further education and the skills agenda? How can government and industry promote regional skills and innovation, and how can industry and policymakers deliver on the government’s commitment to significantly increase the number of people completing high-quality skills training in every area of the UK?
Alongside Simon Boss, consultant at Shoosmiths and the firm’s former CEO, panelists included Alex Burghart MP, Minister for Skills; Justine Greening, chair of Levelling Up Goals and former Secretary of State for Education; Karl Edge, Midlands regional chair and Birmingham office senior partner at KPMG. The session was chaired by Alona Ferber, special projects editor of New Statesman.
Opening the session, the panellists discussed their take on what the state of social mobility is in the UK and touched upon their own personal experiences.
Alex Burghart MP said there are more than 1.3m vacancies in the economy, and he is working on a programme to reform technical qualifications to develop the skills the economy needs by working closely with colleges. One example he used was BP’s major green hydrogen project in Teeside which will work with colleges to develop skills needed so local young people will be able to get a job there. He discussed how there is more of an appetite now to earn and learn with apprenticeships.
KPMG’s Karl Edge discussed his own journey into accountancy and how as a young person, knowing what choices you have can make a difference. He discussed the work KPMG will be doing at local school Holy Family in Coventry, ensuring children from a young age know that every career path is open to them.
Justine Greening discussed her start in life. She said we can’t see talent wasted and that she is happy to be working with companies such as Shoosmiths on Levelling Up. She repeated that knowledge and skills are key, and that young adults need good advice so they know what their choices are, and this is crucial for levelling-up. Justine also mentioned that education, particularly further education, needs to arm young people with the skill to think strategically. She said we will only know when we have done enough when every employer takes steps to ensure they have played their part in this agenda.
Simon Boss said as a large UK law firm Shoosmiths has a very strong values and culture set which connects strongly to the themes of social mobility and the Skills Gap. He said that fixing these things isn’t just down to government. Business has a huge part to play and cannot ‘sit back and say this is somebody else’s problem’.
Simon said that addressing the skills gap and social mobility was about doing the right thing but highlighted that it also makes ‘business sense’. Ensuring talent is attracted and captured from anywhere ultimately means firms are able to give clients what they need.
Simon also referenced Shoosmiths working with Justine and as a result being able to coordinate a solid social mobility action plan. The firm is also committed to Greening’s Levelling Up Goals. Simon acknowledged that it is easier when you have resources to know next steps, however he recognised that for some mid-sized businesses and especially SME’s, it can be difficult without resources in place so it becomes about sharing that knowledge.
Justine Greening said that currently, we have no statistics about what happens to talent once it goes into the workplace, and that we need to foster cultures of ‘join as yourself, be promoted as yourself’.
Karl Edge mentioned a mantra that has stood him in good stead regarding unlocking talent at KPMG - it is not about ‘how clever people are’, but indeed ‘how people are clever’, as everybody has different strengths. This approach allows people to be themselves.
Simon Boss added that in terms of social mobility, measurements and data sets are incredibly important and improving those allows people to believe they have a place in your organisation. Simon mentioned colleague and co-head of Birmingham, Alex Bishop’s experience of visiting a local school, and one of the questions being ‘do you have to be posh to be a lawyer?’ He mentioned that this perception needs to change and doing something more with the data and having a plan to improve it is crucial.
Alex Burghart MP responded to say that in government they are taking datasets from different departments and bringing them together to help identify what courses lead to where and to which careers and occupations. He mentioned that a snobbery to apprenticeships still exists, but he believes this tends to be with older generations. When people answered a question on a UCAS form as to whether they would be interested in an earn and learn apprenticeship, half said they would be, and this is an appetite he would like to see harnessed. Alex also discussed the Lifelong Loan Entitlement which from 2025 will help adults to enhance their learning prospects or change industry.
In one of the last questions, posed by an audience member, the panel were asked whether employers needed incentivising to bridge the Skills Gap and address Social Mobility.
Simon Boss responded to this. He said that businesses play a large part in society and therefore should absolutely be doing the right thing by leading the charge on this. He said that businesses need to talk more – Shoosmiths is discussing this very issue with a banking client at the moment. Ideas and energy on these subjects needs to be shared.
KPMG’s Karl Edge added that the incentive is simple – it is that you build a better business. There is a war for talent and businesses not addressing the skills gap and social mobility challenges will be left behind.