Graham Birse: We’ll work flat out to boost employment

The news that job vacancies in Edinburgh have reached a three-year high is a welcome milestone in the city’s recovery. Two years ago, Oxford Economics predicted that of all the UK cities outside London, Edinburgh was best placed to recover from recession. And so it is proving, with inward investment, development and business confidence gathering pace.

Our celebration should be muted, however. The immediate economic outlook, described at an Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce breakfast recently by the governor of the Bank of England, Sir Mervyn King, as “distinctly choppy”, has prevented many businesses from investing and ­recruiting.

Then there are the unemployment numbers. While the number of vacancies has risen, the number of job losses continued to grow. Edinburgh’s new economic strategy, which will be published in September, estimates that by 2018, there could be 37,000 more people looking for work in the city than there are available jobs.

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Of particular concern is youth unemployment, currently double the adult rate and carrying with it the potential to blight the prospects of an entire generation of school-leavers and graduates alike. We simply cannot allow that to happen.

In the year ended September 2011, 6000 young people (16-24) were seeking employment, 36 per cent of the total number out of work. Finding meaningful opportunities for those young folk is challenging politicians, policy-makers and businesses alike.

We need to be absolutely clear about one thing. Manufacturing job creation schemes and growing the size of the public sector is not an option.

At a time of public sector austerity, the only way to generate jobs is to generate growth. And that growth has to come from the private sector, especially the SMEs which represent 90 per cent of private sector employment and the majority of members of the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce.

When I talk to businesses about the factors inhibiting their growth, they talk about lack of finance, taxation, regulation and red tape as serious constraints. At UK, European and Scottish Government level, we need to see evidence of the state in retreat. It has been a long time coming.

Happily, there is consensus in Edinburgh about confronting the problem. Edinburgh City Council has introduced The Edinburgh Guarantee, a fantastic programme which has galvanised public and private 
sector organisations to find education, training, placements, temporary or full-time employment for hundreds of young people.

The Edinburgh Employability Forum has been looking at the problem in the round, starting with analysis of what employers are looking for in young people, their skills and “job ready” capability.

A recent academic study of SMEs in the US indicated that “employers recruit in direct proportion to the number of employable recruits they are presented with”. What that means is that private sector employers may not have vacancies in their organisations, but they will find work for people with the right skills who meet an obvious demand.

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Organisations like Capital City Partnerships have developed some real capability in this arena and are currently working to simplify the city’s offer to employers and make it easier for them to access the support and the skills they need. A new service to employers is likely to be launched in the autumn.

Our schools, further and higher education establishments have a major role to play too. In schools, by renewing their efforts to instil in their leavers, levels of communication, grammar, punctuation, numeracy and inter-personal skills that are a pre-
requisite to taking your place in the world of work.

In FE colleges, by providing vocational training and qualifications which match the demands of employers and enable them to walk straight into a job interview for vacancies matching their profile.

In this respect, Telford College in Edinburgh is a market leader, recently opening up the Edinburgh Centre for Micro Business, to improve its interface with employers, and developing courses like its NVQ in Railways Engineering to fill a market demand for track-laying and maintenance skills.

In our universities, by engaging with the private sector in a language which businesses understand and providing graduates with the qualifications, the life skills and the confidence to pursue their chosen career.

While we’re at it, why don’t we spend more time encouraging young people to consider self-employment? The Business School at Edinburgh Napier University does just that within its Moffat Business Incubator. Together with its range of business-friendly policies and programmes, it’s a good example of the way forward in business education. And, surprise surprise, 93.6 per cent of its graduates find a position within six months of leaving Napier University, one of the highest in ­Scotland.

Initiatives like these have to become universal if we are to break the cycle of despondency that threatens the current generation of school-leavers and graduates. We owe it to them to deliver.

Graham Birse is managing director of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce