Great North Road: The skills gap

"You feel like a nobody…I felt I can't actually have a decent conversation with somebody".

Not the confession of someone who has done anything wrong, but the words of Shaheen Aziz, one of far too many people who has really struggled not just to get work, but to get the skills employers need in the 21st century.

Shaheen Aziz has struggled with her literacy skills. Credit: ITV News

Like around 5 million others in England she left school without a lasting ability to read, write or count properly.

The stubborn problem of adult literacy and numeracy is perhaps the most acute example of a gap in the country's skills. Tonight from Yorkshire, our next stop on the Great North Road, we ask if we can really fix the economy if we can't make the work force fit.

We meet Nikala Ottley, now happily in a job as a care worker in an old people's home.

But now 24, it took her four years to find full-time employment first as a domestic, and then a care assistant.

Nikala Ottley now has a job as a care worker in an old people's home. Credit: ITV News

She said: "Sometimes I gave up, cos I thought there is no point trying to find a full time job."

She was stuck, without the experience to get work, but unable to find full-time work without experience.

Having such a hard time getting into a permanent job, she now wishes she had left school earlier.

She didn't hate her lessons, but confessed:

I can't sit down for that long, I'd rather just get on and be hands on, instead of looking at books. I'd rather learn with my hands.

Lawrence Tomlinson employs nearly two thousand people. Credit: ITV News

Her boss, Lawrence Tomlinson, has nearly two thousand people in the area on his books, with a construction firm, IT firm and manufacturer Ginetta Cars in Garforth as well as a chain of care homes.

Like a huge chunk of employers he has very real worries about the mismatch between the skills workers have and the skills the economy requires.

All too often, he told me, they have to train people up from scratch, "as an employer you want to be able to build on someone's skills rather than start from zero".

He warns that with particular shortages in engineering, manufacturing is threatened:

It is a really serious situation…if you're just making widgets you're going to struggle to attract the right person…eventually your business will die.

– Lawrence Tomlinson
Kim Popplewell is an adult tutor at a nearby college Credit: ITV News

As a big employer in the area, Tomlinson puts time and effort into training up his staff and there are many others like Kim Popplewell, an adult tutor at the nearby college, who are doing so too.

For someone short of skills, she says "plucking up the courage to come in is a massive first step", especially for the increasing numbers of people who have been made redundant she says are coming through their doors.

The amount of money they have available though is shrinking.

"Funding has been cut back quite significantly", she told me.

Demand is greater, but budgets are shrinking.

The college is doing its best to keep courses open to as many people as possible, but the cost of £600 or £700 she fears is putting retraining out of the reach of some of those who need it the most.

Their courses are perhaps needed more than ever, but due to financial fears, fewer people are actually signing up.

Factories need skilled people. Credit: ITV News

Filling the skills gap is without question a long-term conundrum.

But the impact of recession where jobs are in short supply has made the problem more acute.

Yet recession also means less money to go round. And with that, ironically, the threat is that solutions are pushed further out of reach.