How can Europe's cities ensure their citizens have the right skills?

Some upskilling taking place in a vocational college. Image: Getty.

Creating new jobs only goes so far towards addressing unemployment: people need the skills to do these jobs. And our fast-paced labour market means the skills to keep up are changing constantly.  

This is an urban challenge: cities are hubs of knowledge, innovation and industry. City authorities are in tune with the needs of local labour markets and citizens. They can identify and predict skills shortages, and ensure the right skills are being developed. This is especially true for those who find it hardest to find a job, like vulnerable groups and young people.  

It is in cities where new approaches can be tried and tested. Rotterdam was the first city in continental Europe to use a social impact bond, a relatively new financial mechanism based on a “pay for success” model, to address youth unemployment. Buzinezzclub offers a full package of support that has helped hundreds of young people gain the skills needed to realise their career goals and get off benefits for good. Projects like these can make a real impact on Europe’s unemployment levels – especially if national governments and the EU institutions work with cities to scale up and capitalise on their success.

Young people and the most disadvantaged people in society have been hardest hit by the employment crisis. Phenomena such as the “gig economy”, where independent workers are contracted to complete specific jobs, and crowdsourcing work, are on the rise.


But low-skilled workers can find it difficult to access this kind of work, which also threatens a “race to the bottom” in terms of income. This is a challenge for local authorities, who need to ensure these approaches benefit all involved.

We have witnessed a huge transition in our cities over the course of EUROCITIES’ 30 year history. The end of mass manufacturing in the 1980s left many cities in decline, while the emergence of concepts like the circular, green, sharing and knowledge economies in recent years has brought with it the need for brand new skills.

Cities need to keep ahead of the game. The green economy, for example, is one of the few sectors that continued to grow despite the economic crisis, and cities are seizing this opportunity. Glasgow operates a “green wardens” scheme to train and employ people in various greening and sustainability projects in the council’s core services. This is aimed at people who have been out of work for a long time, left school without qualifications, or have been discharged from the armed forces.

Investment in skills needs to start locally, and must meet local needs. In Ghent, the city carried out a study to assess the needs of local employers now and in future. It has helped the authorities to better understand the impact of disruptive technologies, changing demographics, globalisation and other factors on local employers, and forms part of a demand-driven approach to skills development.

Some cities offer training adapted to local needs, or provide support to jobseekers. Brighton & Hove operates the Brighton Employability Advice and Careers Hut, for example, a collaboration between local schools and employers to design an employability hub for young people.

Many cities take advantage of diverse networks to draw up programmes working with schools, educational institutes, social services, NGOs and local employers. Malmo is one such city, having recently set up partnerships with six civil society organisations to provide training and skills development and training, and to put in place measures to support labour market inclusion. This approach is being recognised at European level too, with the European Commission’s New Skills Agenda for Europe, launched in June this year, mentioning the importance of partnerships at local level.  

The work is happening in cities, but the impact goes much further. European cities are keen to scale up their success. We hope this might soon become a reality, with the launch of a new urban agenda partnership on jobs and skills by the European Commission early next year. This tests a new way of working between cities, national governments and the EU institutions, with the aim of guiding better policies and funding for the local level.

The impact of this, we hope, will be that cities are better prepared to face future challenges, to the benefit all European citizens. 

Anna Lisa Boni is secretary general of EUROCITIES.

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Treating towns as bastions of Brexit ignores the reasons for the referendum result – and how to address them

Newcastle: not all cities are booming. Image: Getty.

The EU Referendum result has often been characterised as a revolt of Britain’s “left-behind” towns and rural areas against the “metropolitan elite”. But this view diverts attention from the underlying issues which drove the Brexit vote – and ironically has diverted policy attention away from addressing them too.

It’s true that a number of big urban authorities, led by London, voted to stay. And overall people living in cities were less likely to vote leave than towns. Setting aside Scottish cities and towns, which both voted very strongly for remain, Leave polled 51 per cent of the vote in English and Welsh cities, compared to 56 per cent in local authorities that include towns. (Consistent data isn’t available below local authority level.)

Yet there is a lot of variation underlying this average across towns. In Boston, 75 per cent voted Leave, and in Hartlepool and Grimsby it was 70 per cent. But at the other end of the scale, there were a number of towns that voted to stay. For example, Leave polled at 49 per cent in Horsham and Harrogate, and 46 per cent in Windsor and Hitchin. In places such as Winchester, Leamington Spa and Bath, the Leave voted amounted to less than 42 per cent of the vote.

What drives this variation across towns? Data from the Centre for Cities’ recent report Talk of the Town shows economic outcomes were the biggest factor – with towns that voted Remain also having stronger economies.

For a start, pro-Remain towns generally have smaller shares of people who were either unemployed or claiming long-term benefit. (This is based on 2011 data, the latest available.)

Towns which voted Remain also had a higher share of jobs in high-skilled exporting businesses – an indication of how successful they have been at attracting and retaining high-paid job opportunities.

And both measures will have been influenced by the skills of the residents in each town: the higher the share of residents with a degree, the stronger the Remain vote.

So the Brexit vote was reflective of the varying economic outcomes for people in different parts of the country. Places which have responded well to changes in the national economy voted to Remain in the EU, and those that have been ‘left behind’ – be they towns or cities – were more likely to have voted to Leave.

This sends a clear message to politicians about the need to improve the economic outcomes of the people that live in these towns and cities. But the irony is that the fallout from the Brexit has left no room for domestic policy, and little progress has been made on addressing the problem that, in part, is likely to have been responsible for the referendum outcome in the first place.

Indeed, politicians of all stripes have seemed more concerned about jostling for position within their parties, than setting out ideas for domestic policy agenda. Most worryingly, progress on devolution – a crucial way of giving areas a greater political voice – has stalled.


There was talk earlier this year of Theresa May relaunching her premiership next summer focusing on domestic policy. One of her biggest concerns should be that so many cities perform below the national average on a range of measures, and so do not make the contribution that they should to the national economy.

But addressing this problem wouldn’t ignore towns – quite the opposite. What Talk of the Town shows is that the underperformance of a number of cities is bad not just for their residents or the national economy, but also for the residents in surrounding towns too. A poorly performing neighbouring city limits both the job opportunities open to its residents and impacts on nearby towns’ ability to attract-in business investment and create higher paid jobs.

This isn’t the only factor – as the last chart above suggests, addressing poor skills should be central to any serious domestic policy agenda. But place has an influence on economic outcomes for people too, and policy needs recognise that different places play different roles. It also needs to reflect the importance of the relationships between places to improve the access that people across the country have to job opportunities and higher wages.

The Brexit vote didn’t result from a split between cities and towns. And if we are to address the reasons for it, we need to better understand the relationship between them, rather than seeing them as opposing entities.

Paul Swinney is head of policy & research at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

Read the Centre’s Talk of the Town report to find out more about the relationship between cities and towns, and what this means for policy.