Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Building Skills to Fuel Our Economic Growth; an Army of Entrepreneurs Are Teaming Up with Education Providers to Boost Skills in the Region. JEZ DAVISON Reports

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Building Skills to Fuel Our Economic Growth; an Army of Entrepreneurs Are Teaming Up with Education Providers to Boost Skills in the Region. JEZ DAVISON Reports

Article excerpt


WHEN serial entrepreneur George Heydon acquired well-known Gateshead brick supplier W. McGovern and Co earlier this year, he immediately embarked on a sizeable investment programme that will see the firm grow the business and recruit extra staff.

At the time Mr Heydon, a successful businessman behind a host of national and international ventures, said talent within the business would help to carry it forward and uphold a brand that has been synonymous with the North East for two-thirds of a century.

Others, however, have not been so lucky. The equally ambitious Dean Benson, who heads up fast-expanding digital agency Visualsoft in Stockton, said he was "crying out" for staff that could help him realise his dream of doubling his workforce. He expressed frustration that, despite the North East's growing reputation for digital excellence, the lack of skills in the industry was hindering his plans to create jobs in the area.

Mr Benson and his team have been proactive in searching for a solution. Earlier this year, Visualsoft joined forces with Stockton Riverside College to pilot an introductory web development course that could see students go on to secure an apprenticeship with the firm. The full-time programme sees students develop customer relationship management skills and the technical know-how that's required by fast-growth companies such as Visualsoft.

The company has also launched a forward-thinking recruitment scheme that rewards job hunters and their friends for filling vacancies.

In return for their efforts, individuals are awarded a "bounty" if the candidate they put forward proves to be suitable for the job and passes a probationary period.

Mr Benson is hoping that these two initiatives will help the firm tackle a "frustrating" skills shortage.

He said: "We have 208 staff in the business now so we're always growing - but getting the right level of skills into the business has been something of a challenge. Through our partnership with Stockton Riverside College we're hoping to launch a skills academy that will give young people recognised qualifications and a great chance of getting a job at the end of it."

Although the idea is in its infancy and the finer details are yet to be mapped out, the grand plan is to draw on the training expertise of other colleges around the country and turn it into a national venture.

Mr Benson said: "We'll trial it in our sector first to see if it works, but I see no reason why we can't roll it out into other sectors if it's a success."

Initiatives such as this will help tackle skills shortages and equip young people with the skills they need to either gain employment or launch their own venture. That will be music to the ears of economic development chiefs, with business start-up rates in the region remaining stubbornly low.

The North East has 629 private businesses per 10,000 head of population, according to the latest official Business Population Estimates - 399 short of the national average. Whilst the data shows an overall rise in the number of businesses that employ people, there has been a significant fall in the number of people who have started an enterprise but, rather than moving it to the next level by employing staff, have instead gone back into direct employment.

Nigel Mills, chairman of the Entrepreneurs' Forum, said: "We must look at the report as a whole and see it as a warning that more must be done to support small businesses and help them grow to become the employers of the future.

"We need more businesses employing more people. Only by doing that can we create the wealth and jobs that will help to grow the regional economy."

We have together enough for help " A self-made entrepreneur, Mr Mills understands what it takes to build successful businesses. He's best known for transforming the Mills Group of convenience stores into a PS165m business with 2,00-plus employees before selling it to Tesco four years ago for more than PS20m. …

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