As the Government announces plans for the second phase of HS2, our Birmingham Education Associate Mike Zatyka reflects on the opportunities ahead.

Being Enabling Enterprise’s man in Birmingham makes the West Coast Mainline a regular feature of my working week. Ever since childhood I’ve enjoyed travelling on trains, initially for their speed and the excitement of the end destination and later for the brief quietness and tranquillity it offers for me to catch up with my work. But after a while even I start to look at my watch and wonder when we’re going to get there. At times like these I think about the beautiful, glossy HS2 train hurtling across an idyllic, sun-drenched countryside. But what will HS2 mean for the city I and half a million other young people call home? By the time the glossy train becomes part of our everyday reality will it be bringing with it new jobs, economic growth and more investment?

“The go-ahead for HS2 provides probably the single most important opportunity for economic growth in (the West Midlands) for generations.” (Mike Whitby, Leader of Birmingham City Council, 01/2012)

Boosting Birmingham’s Economy

According to plans, 2026 will see the first high speed London to Birmingham train. This means that by the time the Year 2 students of today toast their 18th Birthday, they will be within 45 minutes of UK’s economic heart and some of the best-paid entry-level positions in the EU. At the same time Birmingham expects a healthy 22,000 new jobs, an additional £1.5 billion for the regional economy and greatly improved business opportunities. According to the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce the major benefactors are likely to be distribution, manufacturing and freight firms, universities, and professional and financial services.

So by current predictions, there is much to be optimistic about for Birmingham’s young people. But will Generation HS2 be ready to make the most of this opportunity? A report stacking Birmingham up against the likes of Manchester and Leeds (also to benefit from HS2) paints a less optimistic picture. Birmingham ranked bottom in a comparison of workforce skills to the level of qualifications in the major cities. Only 43.5% of the workforce was qualified to or above A-level, and te ratio of those with no formal qualifications to those with NVQ Level 4 or equivalent was no better for the Second City.

How Do We Benefit the HS2 Generation?

But it’s not all about qualifications. Success also requires having an employment-ready skill set, experiences which can demonstrate and evidence these skills and the aspirations to go for it all. That’s why enterprise education is so vital. Having spent the last two years meeting some of Birmingham’s senior teachers, business leaders and inspirational young people, I’m reassured by the vast amount of great work going on. Birmingham has a thriving apprenticeships programme and there is a genuine recognition on the part of top businesses and SMEs that preparing the next generation for the future is also their responsibility. Our work in Birmingham, supported by some of its leading businesses including Wragge & Co, Lloyds and Bromford Group shows a real commitment to developing the skills of young people in our city. But let’s not get complacent, there is still a lot more that needs to happen. There are still many young people missing out and many businesses not getting involved – and all this alongside increasing unemployment rates in and around Birmingham.

When I ask senior teachers about their experience of enterprise education or about any business partnerships they might have, they often reflect achingly on a time when so much more was going on. A time when budgets were bigger, a time when they could get a lot more support for free and a time when there were so many networks and initiatives they could access for ideas. Young entrepreneurs are also quick to highlight programmes and networks which helped them to harness their potential, inspire and be inspired, but which are no longer what they once were.

A Catalyst for Innovation

There is no doubt that the recession and the major cuts to Europe’s largest local authority have had a major impact on Birmingham and the provision of support for young people to gain the insights, advice, wider skills and experiences they need. At the same time change can also be a catalyst for innovation, a chance for new ideas to flourish and for stakeholders to think differently about how they open up their resources. Our approach of supporting teachers from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 5 to bring enterprise education into their classrooms every week is one way we can support Generation HS2, and together with our business supporters, bring young people closer and closer to the professional world.

So, whilst great work is being done, we need to see greater collaboration, more resources and a growing and continued commitment from schools, businesses, and local and national government to work together.

For now, the image of that glossy train arriving into Birmingham and the growth promised in its promotional video is a long way off. But with the right preparation and investment in children from the youngest years of Primary School, we can help make it a reality.

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