A question that I often get asked as an MP is “What is the best thing that you have done as an MP?” My response? – simple – the Carlisle Skills Fair.
The idea of a skills fair came from a meeting I had with a local engineering forum. At this meeting the vast majority of the manufacturing firms indicated that it was difficult for people living in Carlisle, especially young people, to find out about career or training opportunities in the area. They were telling me that there was a willingness and ability amongst local companies to train a new generation of Carlisle youth – but that it was difficult for the employers to find a setting that would allow them to engage with young people.
It got me thinking that even in this digital age, there does sometimes have to be a physical meeting forum to make connections. In Carlisle we have a number of excellent training providers, a strong and successful manufacturing base, and a good stable workforce. However, with very little face-to-face interaction, their on-hand advice was not sufficiently reaching those at school-leaving age who were deciding on future careers. So, with a lot of local support from the local training providers, I decided to organise and host the first Carlisle Skills Fair in 2014.
The idea was simple but effective. I booked a large venue in which employers and training providers who had vacancies for apprenticeships, employment or training exhibited. Then I invited all those interested in a new career or in new qualifications to come along and talk to the employers.
The fair would be open to secondary school students looking to get information about potential careers, jobseekers, and those already employed who were considering a career change. It would be supported by sponsorship from training providers, businesses, and the Skills Funding Agency.
The first event was a huge success, and the Carlisle Skills Fair has now entered its third year, growing stronger and larger each year. This year 85 employers and 15 skills providers took stalls seeking to attract and retain the talent of the future in Carlisle. The employers included international businesses such as Nestle and Pirelli, growing national companies such as Story Homes, and local enterprises such as Print Graphic – all of which make a significant contribution to our local economy.
Public sector organisations who also rely on a skilled workforce took stalls, including the local hospital, police, fire service, and the armed forces. Further support from the local newspaper, schools, and colleges along with the Job Centre all helped to make this year’s event a great success, attracting in the region of 3,000 attendees.
The event is about creating opportunities for local people to find employment, apprenticeships and training opportunities, but it also about helping the businesses, organisations and the community as a whole. A small city like Carlisle needs to be able retain and attract talent if it is to succeed. To create a prosperous and successful city the one key ingredient we need to get right is the skills mix. It is only by ensuring that we have the right skills – and, crucially, the right mix of skills – that our local business sector will be able to develop, grow and succeed. I am most proud of the fact that the event is funded entirely by sponsorship from business and training providers. I think this demonstrates the value that local employers are placing on the fair.
The fair brings together the already existing offer of Carlisle’s businesses, and the potential of its people. It provides a connection that was previously missing. But I do think it has created an energy of its own – and it is part of a solution to ensure that our part of the world has the skills and businesses it needs to compete in an ever changing and ever diversifying world.
Over the last three years I have heard many successful stories of people finding apprenticeships or jobs with business through Carlisle Skills Fair. The stories are always encouraging and really demonstrate the value of the fair at a personal level. For example, this year I spoke to a young woman standing at a stall enthusiastically encouraging the next generation to get involved and seek career opportunities. She was pleased to tell me that she had come to the first skills fair as a young student and had met with an employer who offered her an apprenticeship. Three years later, here she was, not only qualified, but representing the company she had joined. I still get a huge amount of pleasure hearing from constituents who tell me their son or daughter got an apprenticeship from the Carlisle Skills Fair.
The Carlisle Skills Fair isn’t just the answer to a question about the best thing that I have done as an MP – it is my proudest achievement for the city I care about the most. I am pleased to say that I will be hosting the fourth Carlisle Skills Fair next year on the 26th January 2017.