Recent news coming from Welsh business provided a source for celebration of sorts, yet also delivered a shiver of reality that more pain may be inevitable as we seek to bounce back from the repercussions of Covid-19.
Even amid news of job losses, we could recognise the incredible capacity for resilience that Wales demonstrates when it is most needed.
First, the good news.
A survey carried out by Lloyds Bank revealed that business confidence in Wales has rebounded to its highest level since the pandemic broke. Across 1,200 businesses from all sectors, confidence in the economy leapt by 14 points to +9% in March – the first positive result since the rolling study launched a year ago.
It was a clear indication that the feel-good factor is returning to the country, as the vaccine roll-out continues, economic support measures are extended and more and more firms anticipate a return to normal trading as the economy begins to open up throughout April and May.
This was also echoed in an Institute of Directors survey which revealed that optimism in the economy is at its highest since just after the 2019 General Election.
So far, so good.
Sadly the confidence was tempered by the news that Aston Martin is shedding jobs at its St Athan plant. Although the Welsh Government is working to support the workforce and Unite is hoping to save as many roles as possible, it shows that economic confidence is far from universal. With the continued delay in opening up sectors of the economy – parts of the leisure industry for instance must be concerned and counting down the days to May – the recovery may well be bumpy.
The devastating impact on workers at St Athan is especially bitter as the Aston Martin venture is a flagship inward investment project, bringing in the high skilled, high value jobs that Wales needs.
Hopefully the skills can be kept within Wales. Manufacturing Wales, which represents firms in the sector across the country, expressed hope that those within Wales’ manufacturing community can support each other by collaborating on knowledge sharing, supply chain efficiencies and joint commercial opportunities. It aims to retain the skilled and dedicated workers in Wales, and cited examples of firms investing in projects which demand highly skilled workers – just like those at risk of redundancy at Aston Martin.
It was a welcome indication that men and women of good will – whether they represent government, trade unions or employers – are focused on the need to protect Wales’s engineering and manufacturing sectors. It is the best way we have of sustaining the country’s rising economic confidence and ensuring that the early signs of a healthy comeback from the ill-effects of the pandemic are no mirage.
Skills and training top manifesto wish list
With the Senedd elections rapidly approaching, business leaders across Wales are looking closely at manifesto commitments made by all parties.
Key areas to scrutinise will be plans for economic recovery and the longer-term management of the economy, including support for the crucial SME sector, commitments to a green recovery and the use of the Welsh tax raising powers.
For me, skills and training policies are of crucial importance to support those most affected by the pandemic. We know that younger people and certain groups within society have been disproportionately affected by the economic effects of Covid-19 and that workers in certain sectors are particularly vulnerable to the effects of technological changes.
We have seen through the work carried out by Working Wales and the apprenticeship programme in Wales that interventions can help. In future, it’s vital that parties are able to clearly demonstrate how skills and training policy (and importantly, funding) will support these groups.
Although the apprenticeship programme in Wales has been a success, with the Government’s target of creating 100,000 all age apprenticeships during the Senedd term, training for leaders across all roles and sectors is also an important area to consider. It is a vital contributor to developing our leaders and managers for the challenges ahead and in addressing productivity issues in businesses – an area which is being tackled in England through the funding of level 7 apprenticeships – and one which we would call on parties to consider in order to boost Wales’ productivity and competitiveness, as we move beyond the pandemic.
A well-funded and easy to navigate skills and training programme will ensure that Welsh businesses have access to a talent pool of workers who they are able to develop, and to ensure that their businesses, and communities across Wales, can thrive.
Although the election has been overshadowed by the events of the last 12 months, the poll represents a real opportunity to build on the confidence we are now seeing, to overcome setbacks and to set Wales’ path towards recovery and beyond.