Training for tech and its pitfalls
Part three – Local priorities for economic regeneration: an Enfield view
Alan Sitkin, Senior Lecturer, Regents University London
This series – about Enfield, London’s most northerly borough – opened by lamenting how today's cash-strapped local authorities cannot afford to implement all the regeneration policies we need. The last blog looked at the challenges that all London councils face when mobilising the London Living Wage to try to improve residents' living standards. Companies can move where wages are lower and this can spark a race to the bottom in terms of the wages they offer less skilled employees. Councils opposing this then find it harder to attract potential employers.
My response, as Cabinet Member for Regeneration, was to develop an array of qualitative policies aimed restoring the London Borough of Enfield’s bargaining position.
The next blog in this series will look at some of the initiatives we devised as examples of what interventionist local authorities might attempt to do even after eight years of Tory government.
The first initiative started with the seemingly obvious contention that to alleviate in-work poverty, Enfield needed better paying employers. The question then became which sectors offer higher wages. One obvious answer was tech, which for several years now has been extremely hot, in terms of both the amount of work and the remuneration on offer (with website CW jobs putting the current sector average at a whopping £62,500 per annum. Hence the framework we created called “Silicon Enfield”.1
We knew that tech employers would only hire Enfield people willing to train up for this demanding profession. The Council’s first action was therefore to organise and budget for training delivery. One big lesson I’ve learnt is how much public money originally allocated to a policy initiative gets spent on the intermediaries (both public and private sector) charged with its delivery. We used to receive countless un-solicited approaches from self-appointed jobs brokers whose hearts were sometimes in the right place but whose presence complicated the coordination2 of our employability efforts. Above all their remuneration ate into the funds available for core spending items, in this case, computers and computer teachers. You just had to send them away, even if they would curse you afterwards.
The next decision was who to target with our initiative. Given my conception that the State’s first duty is to redress social imbalances, we decided that Silicon Enfield should cater to the population that would derive maximum social uplift from it - namely our borough’s most deprived (often BME) communities who are badly under-represented in high paying digital professions.3 With this approach we were also trying to re-balance the loss of bargaining power that many disadvantaged populations - specifically women – have suffered in recent years with the atomisation of work and waning of trade union power.4 Achieving two goals at once sounded like a good thing.
Having identified the people we hoped would sign up to the programme, we knew where to locate it to minimise participants’ distance to travel – a recognised impediment to people taking part in professional training schemes.5 The best location in deprived east Enfield – was the Edmonton Green shopping centre where Barnet-Southgate FE college – a regular and trusted partner of the Council – ran an annex with a large computer room.
The college also thought that as long as enough learners showed an interest in the new programme, they could find funding for teachers. That sounded fantastic but turned out to be a huge pre-condition. It is perfectly understandable that further education colleges are only prepared to deliver programmes if they are assured of getting enough bums on seats – like everyone else, they have limited budgets to spend and fixed costs to cover.
Our good idea could only succeed if there was a big take-up by the local learners. To achieve it, we asked fellow councillors from the local community to mobilise their neighbourhood networks (schools, churches, social clubs and volunteer associations). Councillors pride themselves on these networks – a key part of their local roots, attesting to their representativeness. But though my friends worked hard at this, we got almost no response.
To what extent is self-confidence a factor in workforce (re-) integration attitudes? Were Enfield’s deprived communities daunted by the idea of working in a cutting-edge sector like tech?6 Whatever the explanation, we got barely a trickle of willing digital learners, never mind the regular flow that was needed. That being the case, we agreed with the FE college – which was lined up to publicise the programme if it ever took off – to pull the plug. “Build it and they will come” worked in Costner’s field of dreams but not in Silicon Enfield. Not yet at least…
Difficulties in getting people to sign up to vocational training initiatives in targeted sectors was, in my experience, one of the biggest obstacles to Enfield’s regeneration. The economics and coordination of this field of activity is crucial, however, and I shouldn’t give the impression that this disappointment stifled our enthusiasm. As Maya Angelou wrote, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated”. There are employability success stories too, and they too are waiting to be told.