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Not so long ago, the West Midlands had a serious skills problem. Go back just 12 years and you will see that a fifth of the region’s workforce had left school with no qualifications at all. It was an issue that impacted businesses of all kinds.

In the Black Country, it was more pronounced - with the highest proportion of people with no skills anywhere in the country. This posed a huge challenge.

Today, while there are undoubtedly still issues to deal with regarding skills, the picture is much improved. The number of unqualified school-leavers has been almost halved.

The Black Country has made the most rapid progress in terms of reducing the proportion of people with no qualifications. This has been achieved through retraining in areas like construction and digital, and in the huge growth in modern apprenticeships.

Apprenticeships have changed. They are no longer the old-fashioned indenture-style training of previous generations. Apprenticeships offer a great way to earn and learn at the same time, provide key work experience and a clear pathway for a career, no matter what age you are. They provide learning at all levels, right up to a degree – and the business community in the Black Country has embraced them.

When it comes to apprentices, we have a real advantage here in the West Midlands in the shape of the Apprenticeship Levy Transfer Scheme. We are the only region to benefit from a scheme of this kind, which allows us to use the unused Apprenticeship Levy paid by big local companies to help smaller firms.

So, if a big firm is paying the levy but not using all of the money, rather than being swallowed by a national pot those funds come back to the West Midlands – where we then use it to help smaller firms take on apprentices.

Using this approach, everybody wins – big businesses know their levy is being put to good use in the region, local people benefit from new job opportunities, and smaller businesses can consider expanding their workforce as the levy fund will cover 100% of the cost of training their apprentices. The unspent levy from just two major banks – HSBC and Lloyds – is paying for 800 apprentices at small firms. Furthermore, Chamber Platinum Group member, National Express, has also agreed to let us use their unused levy to help smaller employers.

In all, we hope the levy fund will collect up to £40 million to create new apprenticeships for people in the region and the development growth we are seeing across the region is also bringing on-the-job training opportunities.

A series of construction training ‘hubs’, funded by the West Midlands Combined Authority with £2.3million from the Government’s Construction Skills Fund, can be found on-site at some of the most significant developments going on across the West Midlands – such as at the new Athletes Village being built for the Commonwealth Games.

In the Black Country, unemployed Wolverhampton residents are benefiting from a hub based at WV Living’s ‘The Marches’ housing development on the site of the former Wednesfield High School.

Also, in Wolverhampton, the creation of the National Centre for Construction and Development Excellence, on Wolverhampton’s Springfield Campus, will see students learn construction techniques and apply them to derelict brownfield sites across the region.

The aim is for this new facility to work with our universities to develop new techniques and equip students with state-of-the-art skills, honed on local building sites. We want our Brownfield experts to become the envy of the world, in demand from China to Dubai, remediating polluted land and building skyscrapers.

Elsewhere, technical education is being boosted. Dudley College’s bid to build a £32.5 million institute of technology near the Black Country Living Museum has been approved by the Government. The institute on Castle Hill will cater to more than 2,000 learners by 2025.

Work is due to start in October with the sprawling three-story building expected to open in September 2021.

It will focus on apprenticeships and offer courses in advanced manufacturing, modern construction methodologies and medical engineering.

So, the Black Country is making great strides in addressing the skills gap that once posed huge challenges, and it is the business community that is driving change.

According to the Local Enterprise Partnership, more Black Country residents are now educated to degree level or above than ever before – 163,000 residents. The percentage of people with no qualification continues to reduce.

The number of apprenticeships is increasing, with 13,000 apprenticeships started, and economic growth has seen 4,900 new workforce jobs created.

Crucially, the proportion of the Black Country population known as ‘NEETS’ - people ‘Not in Education, Employment or Training’ is now below the national average.

As the crucible of the Industrial Revolution, the Black Country was built on innovation and skills. But as the needs of the business community have changed, so have the skills needed to ensure growth.

Through apprenticeships, innovative training programmes and with a healthy dose of West Midlands determination, the Black Country is now once again leading the way.