Creating a Fairer York & North Yorkshire post COVID-19

06 July 2020

Mike Hawking, Policy and Partnerships Manager at Joseph Rowntree Foundation and member of the Social Inclusion Sub-Group of the York & North Yorkshire LEP Skills & Employability Board, talks about what is needed to create a fairer society post COVID-19.

The coronavirus pandemic has affected everyone in different ways. Too many have lost loved ones, or know someone who has been hospitalised. We’ve all been getting through lockdown as best we can, with many parents juggling work and home schooling and those with an underlying health condition advised to shield. Many have been furloughed, whilst others have been laid off. We see that whilst we’ve all been experiencing the same Covid-19 storm, we’ve been sailing through it in very different boats.

The pandemic’s wider impact on our region’s economy is only now becoming clearer. But just as in lockdown, our experiences will differ as we seek to chart a path to recovery.  The concern is that those who were struggling before the crisis will face the double injustice of having been less able to isolate themselves from the health risks of coronavirus and are now most exposed to the worst economic effects of the pandemic.

In a few months, we’ve gone from record national employment rates, to seeing the unemployment claimant count increase by 125% to 2.8 million people. Sectors such as retail and tourism are feeling the pressure more acutely, and workers such as women and young people who are the backbone of this workforce, will be the hardest hit.

The lockdown has affected more than just the labour market. Whilst many of our education providers successfully adapted their provision, it is estimated that only a third of pupils are engaging with school work remotely and that this is much worse for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

A great challenge lies ahead. The government had previously committed to levelling up our economy. At the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), we believe it’s more important than ever that government brings forward a bold levelling up agenda, by at least maintaining spending power and targeting job creation in areas that are likely to see the highest rises in unemployment. The government should increase the scale of investment in basic, digital and vocational skills to match the ambitious investments in infrastructure announced earlier this year.

While national plans are being developed, vital strategies are also being developed at a local level. The challenges are no different – how to boost the number of good jobs available and supporting people into work; improving skills; and helping to improve productivity and business performance.

In our area, the York & North Yorkshire LEP have worked with partners across the region to develop a new shared vision of economic recovery, to build on our great region’s strengths and to shift toward a greener, fairer and stronger economy, accelerating opportunities for innovation and change in area.

A bridge to the Local Industrial Strategy, this plan will inform policy and investment decisions. New jobs and business growth will be stimulated by accelerating the transition to greener and digitised technologies. JRF has long called for a focus on the quality of existing jobs as well as newly created ones, so it is welcome to see this acknowledged in the recovery vision. Many key workers and carers who kept our country running during the pandemic are in low-paid work. A better, fairer, economy would see these workers earn the real living wage, have job security and be recognised for their valuable contribution to society.

Supporting people back into work is a priority. Whilst there is an urgent need to help those, including the young, who’ve recently lost their jobs to get back to work, we must continue to support those who’ve been out of work for some time.  It is welcome that a number of current and future local programmes will support our residents, both in work and job seeking, to gain the skills that enhance their employment prospects and support a greener, fairer stronger economy.  It will be crucial that any national programmes developed by government are made to work alongside these schemes.

Just as vital will be ensuring that employment and education support prepares people for the job opportunities that lay ahead, and not those of the past. There’s a great opportunity to leverage the new Yorkshire & Humber Institute of Technology, delivering learning and training to help people gain the skills required for higher-paid jobs of the future.

So, is a fairer economy possible in our region? It is not just possible, it is essential. If the pandemic has shown us one thing, it is that together we are stronger and can make positive change happen that is better for all of us.

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