City Matters: Our economic problems won’t go away just because it’s an election year

Mark Boleat
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AS MANY workers return to their offices today after a well-deserved break, attention turns to the economic challenges that we are going to face in 2015.

On that list are a number of issues, all of which present concerns to varying degrees: a snap election in Greece adding to Eurozone uncertainty; the perennial speculation about when interest rates will rise; and public finances in the red despite years of constraint, to name but a few.

With only 121 days until the General Election, however, the number one issue will be who walks through the famous door of 10 Downing Street come May. So what can the City hope for in the tightest of races in recent memory?

Before answering that question, I want to echo the recent comments from John Longworth, director general at the British Chambers of Commerce. His main argument, with which we in the City agree, is that we must not deflect attention away from the economy with political point scoring at this crucial juncture. It might be too much to hope for, but at least it is a start.

A more achievable request, however, is for our politicians to focus not simply on May’s vote, but on what they actually do when governing. And with that comes an issue which can’t be solved overnight by any party, and which goes far beyond May – the skills shortage in the UK.

Only last month, a Confederation of British Industry survey found that, despite an increase in job creation, 63 per cent of businesses cite the skills shortage as a major threat to the UK’s competitiveness. As the economy continues to move towards more high-skilled occupations, vocational training, including apprenticeships and traineeships, needs to be offering viable alternatives to higher education and a clear route into top jobs. All parties, therefore, should remain committed to addressing the skills gap if we want to remain competitive on the global stage.

In the City of London, more and more employers are engaged with schools in nearby communities because they see the potential for sourcing and developing talent. We actively support businesses in the Square Mile in their efforts to engage with young people, schools and not-for-profit organisations. Such engagement ultimately gives young people valuable experience of the workplace and improves their employability.

There are two things that need to be done to accomplish this, however. First, the right skills framework is needed, so that businesses and local authorities can work hand-in-hand to match the skills provision with the needs of employers in their areas. It is down to politicians to create this system. Second, businesses need to get serious about the skills gap and stop saying that there isn’t enough talent in their respective industries, because it simply isn’t true.

Now is the time for us to invest in our future – in a literal sense, by boosting training provision and by making it more targeted to the skills employers need, but also metaphorically, as politicians pledge to equip the workforce of the future. We need to start now, as the global world of business won’t stop turning while Britain is gripped by election fever.

Mark Boleat is policy chairman at the City of London Corporation.