Bridging the skills gap has to start here immediately

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It was encouraging this week to read a report that maps out a future for Portsmouth and the Solent in terms of their maritime industries.

Commissioned by the Minister for Portsmouth Michael Fallon, and prepared by Rear-Admiral Rob Stevens, the booklet – Transforming Solent – was turned around quickly, and its scope is all the more admirable for that.

The cynic will say it is just words and guarantees nothing for this area, but optimists will maintain that it is a necessary step in the long process of attracting extra employment, grants and improvements to our regional economy. After the news of the last year, with BAE announcing it will stop shipbuilding, and for example, Ford’s plans to close its Southampton factory, we should accept all the help we can get.

But one of the chapters in Transforming Solent makes for worrying reading. Under the heading ‘Skills’ it highlights that a fifth of firms in the area have difficulties filling vacancies for engineers, fitters and other skilled workers. Most people in maritime industries think that a skills shortage is affecting their firm.

This is not a new or an unknown problem, though. The lack of students taking up scientific and practical subjects in schools has led to the drive to promote the so-called Stem subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – about which we hear so often.

This report is reinforcement that some schools and colleges and of course pupils in this area need to up their game. There are jobs out there but not people with sufficient skills to take them. Portsmouth as a local authority was in the bottom three overall for GCSE results last summer, and we need to see that level of attainment raised to give young people a better chance in life, and encouragement to gain skills and qualifications.

If, as a city and region, we want to capitalise on a drive to encourage and support extra maritime firms here, then we need to heed the words of Magma Structures chief executive Clive Johnson, who says he struggles to find suitable staff. His words should be borne in mind by everyone, at every level, involved in educating young people.