Brexit feels like the great unknown of our time. Irrespective of how you decided to vote, and whether you still believe that to be the right choice, what has become abundantly clear is that no one can honestly predict what a post-Brexit UK is going to look like.
What is apparent, is the effects are already being felt. Anticipatory reactions hit almost instantaneously as the result appeared clear in the early hours of Friday 24th June 2016 not least with the value of the pound plummeting. It should be added however, that it recovered too. Perhaps symbolic of the path ahead, or perhaps wishful thinking on my part?
Despite the incredible challenges facing Wales, I have no doubt that as a nation we will respond and act accordingly, but we must recognise that when significant economic challenges have caused untold damage to parts of the country in the past, we have not always fully recovered. Not yet at least.
The risk to Wales of Brexit perhaps could be on par with the reduction of manufacturing in the coal and steel industries across the country, where communities where those once proud employers stood, are still waiting for that next big glorious industry to plug the gap left behind. The uncertainty and the uniqueness of the economic situation however, means that this risk might not materialise at all, for we can only make predictions at this stage.
Just over a decade ago, before the economic downturn in 2007 I was in my early twenties, and was a young professional working in Manufacturing in Wales and I recall the sheer impressive availability of training programmes and courses that were available. Most of these courses were advertised with a blue and gold logo that included a circle of stars and were accompanied with the words ‘European Social Fund’.
Leadership and management courses were either fully funded or almost fully funded for most businesses, large and small, and the training delivery industry in the country was booming. Further and higher education establishments began to diversify and offer programmes for businesses, outside the traditional NVQ/BTEC/Diploma framework.
Employees from businesses that were either at risk of redundancy or who were made redundant would often receive Proact or React funding, a sizeable bursary that many employees sensibly used to retrain and pursue a different career.
These were often multi-skilled workers, re-entering the job market with a desire to follow a new career path, whilst still retaining the qualifications and experience gained in their previous line of work.
Skills was on the agenda.
A decade later, and whilst much funding is still available, it is certainly not as flexible as it used to be. It also comes with a vague expiry date under the guise of ‘we don’t know how much longer this funding will be available due to the current economic uncertainty’. You might dismiss this as sales talk, an effort to get customers to enrol employees onto courses asap, but it feels an authentic concern in the present environment to me.
On past experiences, and in response to whatever the outcome of Brexit is for Wales, one thing is for certain; that we must ensure Wales continues to have a skills-focussed labour pool, to continue to make the country an attractive proposition to the rest of the world.
If in the worst case scenario, Wales industry suffers due to potentially negative effects of Brexit, we must ensure our people have the transferrable skills to offer an attractive proposition to alternative employers.
At the other end of the scale, should Brexit make Wales a more enticing country for businesses to come and set up shop, we need to ensure we have the skilled labour available to meet the demand.
Wherever Wales may sit within the sliding scale of potential outcomes Brexit may cause, the country having the right skills will almost certainly play a critical role in Wales prosperity beyond 2019.
But the key element I must emphasise from my last sentence, is Wales having the ‘right’ skills. As I once again reminisce on the volume of funded training available over a decade ago I cannot help but wonder how much of the European Social Fund that was spent on training was not fully or effectively utilised across Wales. At the time, you could do almost any course at any establishment and have that course fully paid for by the Fund. I question whether the return on investment has been realised.
So for Wales to progress, it is my belief that two key items are addressed.
Firstly, the Welsh Assembly Government needs to confirm how the European Social Fund will be replaced, if indeed it will be when the current funding expires. This is important, as businesses will be working on contingency budgeting for a range of post-Brexit scenarios, and if Welsh workplaces have benefitted from 50%, 70% or 100% funding for training for well over a decade, increasing future costs by those values will need to be accounted for, as without it, it is likely the training will not take place leading to a stagnation of skills across the country.
Secondly, the Welsh Assembly Government needs to outline its blueprint for how any replacement funding should be spent and in any case should be aligned to the economic strategy of the country. Whilst the sunny times of pre-2007 skills funding clearly yielded some positive results, a more structured, focused and appropriate use of the funding in our post-Brexit world, will be essential to safeguard business in Wales.
A skilled labour force always has been and always will be essential to the development of the Welsh economy, and the work must start now, to future-proof the country against whatever the effects of Brexit may be.