Working together to stop the ‘brain drain’

Knowledge: Forging stronger and deeper ties between academia and the business community could be key to retaining our finest graduate talent in the region, says Arlen Pettitt, North East England Chamber of Commerce knowledge development manager

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Arlen Pettitt

North East England is blessed with five universities which make a significant contribution to the region’s economy. They are huge employers in their own right; they bring tens of thousands of students and their spending into the region; they draw in research funding and investment which supports businesses.

Despite this, universities and businesses don’t work as closely as they could. For many employers, academia is a strange and distant land whose plentiful resources lie tantalisingly out of reach. Comprehensively bridging that divide could be transformative, whether it’s closing the skills gap, driving innovation or tackling the long-term issue of graduate retention.

The gravitational pull of London and the South in particular has a well-documented effect on graduate numbers in the North of England as a whole, drawing well-qualified people out of the region before their careers have even begun. Research by Homes for the North found that just half of North East graduates remained in the region three years after graduating.

This pattern has the potential to be exacerbated by Brexit. While the North East has a relatively small population of EU workers, domestic talent is likely to be drawn in even greater numbers to other parts of the UK previously reliant on European talent.

We often talk of North East England as a great place to live and work, as well as a great place to base a business. The cost of living is cheap, housing is comparatively affordable, commercial and office space is competitive – but we can’t escape the fact that unemployment tends to be higher here than elsewhere in the country and that we don’t necessarily have the depth of employment opportunities.

“It’s not just about undergraduates and graduates, universities and further education institutions can also support in career development – whether that’s building leadership skills or focusing on things like HR or finance.”

For a new graduate, one with little experience of the world of world, feeling like there is a job out there for them isn’t enough; they need to feel like they will be able to find their second and third jobs, or a second or third career.

A couple of years ago, the Chamber carried out a project on barriers to home ownership in the region, which included some work with Teesside University gathering the views of their students.

One of the issues which surfaced was an expectation that, particularly early in their careers, graduates would be forced to move around to find the job that was right for them. This delayed decisions about home ownership and discouraged planning in the short-term.

This tells us a lot about how the housing market is perceived, but just as much about perceptions of the job market in the era of zero hour contracts and gig work.

Even for those in employment, this twitchiness is there. In 2018, Deloitte surveyed thousands of workers born from 1980 to the mid-1990s on their career intentions – 43 per cent planned to leave their job within two years and just 28 per cent planned to stay beyond five years.

What could be behind this? Research from Manpower Group, Millennial Careers: 2020 Vision, looked at trends in the Millennial workforce and found a tendency not to think of job security but career security. For Millennials (as loose as that term is) the ability to continue to progress, through learning, salary increases, new responsibilities and new opportunities was more important than staying in the same job.

Of those Millennials surveyed, 27 per cent said job security was having skills matched to market need and 24 per cent said it was maintaining their standard of living. When asked what was needed to reach the next level in their careers, 46 per cent said improving skills and qualifications – the top result, narrowly beating doing well in your current job.

Couple these two things together – a propensity to move between jobs and an underlying desire to maintain skills and qualifications – and you can begin to see where the importance of close working between business and education lies.

When at university or otherwise in education, having the business community close at hand broadens horizons and lets a student see the scope of opportunity which exists.

For those businesses below the top tier of the nation’s very biggest, or without name recognition, this can help attract talent to you without the need for a high profile graduate recruitment scheme.

This is especially important for small and medium sized businesses looking for very particular skills but without the resources to take on large numbers of recruits to find the right person.

So, students see the opportunities which are out there and businesses get better access to talent.

On a regional level, that’s good for productivity, it’s good for gender balance (particularly in STEM careers) and it’s good for graduate retention.

There are many forms a link between business and education can take – placements for students; Knowledge Transfer Partnerships where graduates and researchers work on a specific problem or project for a business; joint research; paid consultancy with academics; or initiatives like Northumbria University’s Business Clinic where undergraduates complete practical problem-solving work as part of their course.

It’s not just about undergraduates and graduates, universities and further education institutions can also support in career development – whether that’s building leadership skills or focusing on things like HR or finance. Teesside University’s Leap 50 programme, which takes business leaders and targets the expertise needed to help their businesses to grow, is a great example of what is available for more senior individuals.

There are also organisations like the CPI, who position themselves as the bridge between academic research and practical application. They support businesses looking to improve their processes and help them embed the latest innovations into their workplace – perhaps they need to reduce costs, or comply with another market’s regulations? The CPI finds the right expertise to make that happen.

However, what they do is under- recognised and suffers the same fate as wider engagement with academia – a sense for many businesses that it just isn’t for them.

Together we need to challenge that perception, just as we would the perception that North East England isn’t the place to build a career, and draw together the region’s great businesses and its great educational establishments to aim for a single vision of a productive future.