In the latest instalment of Insider's Q&A series on the Northern Powerhouse, Christian Ash, director for the North at Acorn by Synergie, discusses what the initiative means to him, how Levelling Up funding can address geographical inadequacies, and the need to address skills gaps.
What does the Northern Powerhouse mean to you?
My first job when I joined Acorn by Synergie was to open our office in Preston. Almost two decades later, I'm responsible for five offices and teams working across the North of England, and what I've come to appreciate in that time is that 'the North' is actually a number of unique regions each drawing upon their own individual strengths that are all critical to the development of the area as a whole. It's great to be able to draw on the term 'Northern Powerhouse' as a means to discussing these efforts collectively, but also important in my mind to remember that area-specific issues in business need always to be taken into account too.
Nine years have passed since the phrase 'Northern Powerhouse' was first coined. Has enough happened since then?
It's been great to see some of the recent Levelling Up funding coming into the region and I'm hopeful that it will help breathe new life into those parts of the North that need it the most. I'd also like to think it's going to help address some of the geographical inadequacies in the UK that those of us working to support some amazing organisations and employers who are doing great things in the North would all consider very much to be a work in progress still, however.
How is the appointment of metro mayors starting to help the initiative?
I think the metro mayor initiative could continue to play a key role in how that Levelling Up funding will or won't make a difference to the unique regions of the North we've already outlined. This means electing the right person to start with – someone who really knows the region they're representing and who is going to continue championing its individual wants and needs as a result. We know, as recruitment professionals, that new ways of working are necessary in order to drive growth, but can take time to fully bed in.
Ultimately, the metro mayor initiative is all about the devolution of powers to help drive the next phase of the 'Northern Powerhouse' concept. It's also up to us as businesses to make sure the people taking on these roles know what we need from them too, therefore, for it to truly work.
What needs to be done to help the North recover from the Covid-19 outbreak?
It is clear from the support we continue to provide to businesses across the North of England that following Covid-19 that there is a pressing need to support not only learning gaps that were brought about by the pandemic in our young people as a result, but social ones too. Job seekers looking to enter the market for the first time are less familiar with face-to-face meetings and interview scenarios, for example. Their world has become quite insular and their ability to fully appreciate the supply and demand cycle has been impaired. As recruiters, we're working hard to create real life workplace opportunities for young people and those returning to work across the North, but success in this relies also on the provision of a central system that is fit for purpose too.
There is a need for a sustained focus on the creation of work-based learning opportunities for our young people following the Covid-19 pandemic, and Brexit too, if we are to avoid having a significant impact on our workforce capabilities regionally in future.
What is the single main issue you would like to see dominate the Northern Powerhouse agenda?
Addressing skills gaps present across all sectors is going to play a central role in helping to drive the Northern Powerhouse agenda from our perspective as recruiters working to place job seekers into work regionally across the board. We have so many innovative businesses cropping up, alongside long-standing organisations synonymous with the North around which communities have grown up around. We know that the right people with the necessary skills to help these businesses continue to grow and prosper are within our reach locally, but if those people aren't educated, trained and inspired to believe in themselves and the contribution they are capable of making to the workforce regionally, it could mean trouble.
Is there enough collaboration between towns and cities across the North?
As a business, for Acorn by Synergie to succeed, there has to be collaboration between regions, cities, towns and employers serving these areas for us to achieve success on behalf of the clients and candidates we represent.
Recruitment in itself is a collaborative effort and our work in the North would not be possible without the input of businesses, job seekers, industry bodies, centrally delivered skills funding and much more. Developments in technology have helped streamline this collaborative effort but people and goods will always need transporting from workplace to workplace in real time. So, we could and should always be striving to improve on our transport provisions across the North, not least with the country's wider environmental aims in mind too, for example.
How would the success of the Northern Powerhouse agenda benefit your business?
For us, it's all about making connections on behalf of the people we represent and the agenda set out by the Northern Powerhouse has the potential to support us in achieving this, in so many ways. When it comes to placing the right people in work that is right for them, success relies on joined up thinking at the start of the candidate journey. As recruiters, we're always looking for effective collaboration between colleges, universities and industry bodies, for example, that can support and effect change in the calibre of candidates we can then expect to be seeing at application level.
The Northern Powerhouse ethos is about providing world-class education, training and care for everyone, whatever their background, and as key recruiters responsible for driving business and employment in all sectors across the North, we can't argue with that.