The latest unemployment figures made for sobering reading right across the four nations of our Union, but in Wales these figures bring into sharp focus the challenge facing us as we plan our economic recovery writes Cllr Nick Evans.
Between August and September this year, Wales saw the highest rise in unemployment across the UK. An additional 8,000 people across Wales are no longer working, the equivalent of the entire population of Pembroke leaving the workplace in a few short months.
Figures like this, and the significant economic fallout from the Welsh Government losing control of the pandemic, are going to brighten the spotlight on handling of the economy and the need for a credible plan for Wales’ economic recovery. It will be an election issue like never before.
Unsurprisingly given their 20-year track record, Welsh Labour have been slow to develop a plan to get people back into decent, well-paid jobs and reset our economy. But it has given us a taste of what their plan might look like; a centralised and bureaucratic approach which fails to take into account regional differences and the unique challenges faced by our diverse business sectors, alongside inevitable U-turns on major investments and broken promises to voters.
Wales deserves better than that. Wales needs better than that.
The Welsh Conservatives have already put forward a plan to rebuild and rebalance our economy. This creates business rate free zones which could go some way to help our ailing high streets, invests in green technology and finally gives Wales the sort of transport infrastructure we need. A clear, credible plan like this is essential if we are to send a signal that Wales has the sort of business environment that welcomes new investment and supports free enterprise and entrepreneurship.
But this unprecedented challenge provides an opportunity to go further.
Firstly, we need to listen to what Wales’ businesses are telling us. They are our job creators who will spearhead the economic recovery, and we need to work with them to provide the tools they need to do the job. They know what they need to recover, and understand the opportunities presented by the emerging trends in their sectors far better than distant bureaucrats making decisions in departmental siloes.
Add these voices to the evidence which underpins our regional growth deals, and we create a bespoke plan over a functional economic geography, which builds on local knowledge and economic strengths. The alternative is leaving councils to needlessly compete with their neighbours and miss out on economies of scale, or worse; a blanket, all-Wales approach, which leaves no-one better off and entrenches existing disparities.
Armed with these plans, the Welsh Government needs to get on and make sure that our education and skills ecosystem are set up to support the strengths our country already has and deliver a workforce that is ready to slot right in to the jobs of the future. That means making sure that Further Education receives the focus it deserves as a major contributor to our economic supply chain, so that it can prepare our communities with both the foundational skills and higher-level qualifications they need to secure and progress in ‘future proofed’ careers. Of course, to progress in these careers, people need to know what is available to them, and that means providing high-quality and tailored careers and enterprise advice to anyone entering, or re-entering the labour market. The out-dated ‘tick-box’, broad brush approach to careers advice which I and many others received is redundant in the modern world and needs to make sure it is reflective of the wide opportunities that are available today, alongside a detailed understanding of the local and regional labour market. This is already best practice in some parts of the country but should be the norm, rather than the exception.
While there is an understandable focus on nurturing and attracting new talent, we cannot afford to disregard the talented, skilled and experienced people who are the beating heart of Welsh industry but who, through no fault of their own, find themselves out of a job. The engineering sector has long had a Talent Retention Scheme which ensures that where redundancies are announced in one business, skilled people can be transferred to fill vacancies or support expansion in another. The West of England’s Conservative metro Mayor is pioneering a similar scheme to keep skills and talent within his region and support people into new roles where there are vacancies or businesses are expanding. Wales’ regions could also thrive from following a similar approach.
Lastly, to unlock this potential, we also need the digital infrastructure to get our economy moving. We may not know what commuting or supply chains will look like once we can return to business as usual, but if we want to retain Wales’ economic competitiveness, the chances are that ultra-fast broadband and widespread 4G and 5G connections will be just as important as our much- needed new roads and railways. If we are serious about levelling-up communities, particularly those that have been left behind for generations, then we need this high-quality connectivity right across the country and not just in high-tech urban centres. That way, whether you’re an engineering firm in Merthyr or a farm business in Monmouth, you won’t be held back from accessing the latest technologies to drive up your productivity, access new markets and promote your business.
When we eventually emerge from the pandemic, we have a once in a generation opportunity to not only recover Wales’ economy, but to renew it. We cannot afford for this to be another missed opportunity at the hands of Welsh Labour. This is a chance to be innovative, do things differently, and go further and faster.
The Welsh Conservatives have already shown we understand the scale of the opportunity and have the ambition to set out a plan; now we just need to deliver it.
Nick Evans is a political and communications advisor and local councillor.