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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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.