The Northern Echo’s Level Up campaign has held its latest live event, discussing jobs, skills and education, hosted by believe housing. Here’s what happened when we brought together believe, bp, Cummins, Durham County Council, North East England Chamber of Commerce, Tees Valley Combined Authority and the Teesside Freeport


The event started with our exclusive interview with Patrick Melia, Chief Executive of Sunderland City Council. Talking to BUSINESSiQ Editor Mike Hughes, he said the future for the city was looking stronger than ever.

When he started in the role just under five years ago he knew his priority needed to be quality of life: “Going in, the stats I had in my head were about people. In Sunderland, we fall into ill health too soon and we die too soon. So if you’re a male, you’ve fallen into ill health, probably late 50s, and with females, late 60s, which generally means you’ve got some kind of chronic illness or disability, which means then you’re less able to contribute economically and are more likely to pull from the system.

“But then we die too soon as well and when you go behind that, we don’t exercise enough, we eat the wrong things and we drink too much. Then you look at levels of employment and qualifications and you can start to see we’ve got barriers in the way because our young people do really well in early years, don’t do so well in secondary schools. So what’s happening in secondary schools that we didn’t get as good results as we should? And then why isn’t that translating into jobs?

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“So I was very clear that what we need to do is shift good housing, good education, and the value of jobs, so they could have a longer term impact on all those other things that enabled us to live healthier for longer.

“And if we all live healthier for longer, I think we’ve done a really good job as a city - that’s the journey we’re on in terms of everything we’re trying to do is to shift those metrics.”

Patrick said redefining the centre of the city was a key part of his plans.

“If you look at the city centre, what happened for 30 years? Not a lot. We hollowed out the city centre and while we created jobs in Rainton Bridge and we created jobs in Doxford Park, we didn’t create any jobs in the city centre. Less than 20% of the jobs in the city centre are office based, compared to somewhere like Leeds which has 40% of the jobs in city centre office space, then we wonder why it’s not as vibrant as it should be.

The Northern Echo: The Level Up debate at believe housingThe Level Up debate at believe housing (Image: Newsquest)

“So everything we’re doing is about more people living in the city centre because more people working there will actually double or probably triple the spend on retail and leisure and suddenly you have a more vibrant space.

“Four years ago, we came up with the idea of a new city hall because the building we were in was pretty awful and we needed a brand new building for the council and our partners in the city. We’ve now been living in just over a year, so that puzzle piece was really important.

“So from not having that idea to having the idea and delivering it, we’ve worked really fast. I’m very clear that we don’t talk publicly about things we’re going to do, because Sunderland was really good at talking about a plan, and everyone would say ‘that’s a great plan’. And then we would get the next plan – ‘isn’t this a great plan’ - no one asked the question about what happened to the previous one, why has it not been delivered?

“So what we talked about in public is things that we’ve can deliver on, and things that we’ve got a financial strategy to deliver on.”

Patrick also talked about devolution, firmly turning down the chance to be the new mayor of the ‘LA7’ Combined Authority because “I love the job I’m doing.” His key requirement for the new person would be “a really good team player”.

The city also has bold ambitions to be a digital leader, always balancing the tech with the people who use it.

He said: “Our standard ambition is to be the UK’s smartest city. But the strapline to that has to be ‘no one, nowhere will be left behind’ and that’s a very deliberate strategy.

“By the end of 2024 or early 2025 97% of our buildings in the city, so that’s all housing, all businesses, will have full gigabit connectivity. The ambition for the country is 2030.

“So, it’s then a matter of what you do with that - how do you use it? Because if people can’t afford it, how do you reduce the barriers to people affording to use wat we are offering?”

The Northern Echo: Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen and the panelTees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen and the panel (Image: Newsquest)

After a short break, Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen started the main discussion about jobs, skills and education, saying that the region has to work hard to keep pace with the wave of projects starting to take shape.

He told the audience: “If I’m brutally honest, we’re not prepared for it. If you take the NZT project, at peak construction, they’re projecting 5,500 construction jobs. And that will come at the same time, as we’ll probably have peak construction on something like SeAH or Circular Fuels and there’s a couple of others that will be announced in the coming months. So you could easily see a position at the end of 2025 going into 2026, where you could have three or four projects, and it’s not fantastical to say, you could need 10,000 construction workers, I don’t know where he get 10,000 construction workers from across the North Eats, let alone Teesside.

“What we need is to train people. And there’s no excuse in the wider region because we have stubbornly high unemployment compared to national average and we have a history in construction work. All the skills are there in the North East, there’s just not enough of them. And you get into issues around how sexy is the industry at the minute, you know, people want to sit in front of a computer, or they want to do something that feels slightly more Instagrammable, whereas actually you can have a fantastic career, earn huge amounts of money and have a great life.

“I also think as well as us doing more around the skills pipeline, there’s more that we can do as a combined authority to help support businesses to be able to fund that, to be able to match businesses with education providers better.”

The Northern Echo: BUSINESSiQ Editor Mike Hughes led the debate eventBUSINESSiQ Editor Mike Hughes led the debate event (Image: Newsquest)

Believe housing directly employs 600 people, with many more in the supply chain, and Alan Smith (now the Chief Executive) said a lack of investment ten or 15 years ago meant there was a shortage of the right skills.

He said: “We could talk about what we need to do in the future, but there’s an immediate problem now. For us as an organisation we’re seeing this increase in expectations and standards, with more qualifications required. So I think that link between business, colleges and the government is absolutely essential if we’re going to solve and resource some of those problems now.

“We really struggle to get joiner, plumbers, gas engineers and electricians. And they’re in a pool of limited resource that has been pulled into the private sector with a housebuilding boom, with some of the regeneration investment going on in Teesside and other parts of the country.

“So and that just starts to push up prices and create gaps and create holes, and ultimately, then create risks, particularly dealing with compliance issues. So we look at our apprenticeship programme as a route to resolving some of that. But that takes time - you’re looking at two to three years before somebody is ready. And that’s without the kind of the wealth of experience, you need to understand some of the complexities and problems associated with the jobs.”

For the wider view of how the region is coping with skills shortages and bridging those gaps, Callum George, Policy Adviser at the Chamber of Commerce, said the digitisation of many sectors was an important change.

“We know that a lot of core essential skills in construction and different sectors are still necessary. But I think a lot of them are modernising now and a lot of the things we keep hearing about tell us that the world is digitising - and the same goes for everyday life.

The Northern Echo: Alan Smith, now CEO of believe housingAlan Smith, now CEO of believe housing (Image: Newsquest)

“So we’re seeing a lot of the same jobs and the same products being done, but people are finding more efficient ways to do them. And that is through the use of more advanced technologies. So there needs to be this better understanding of the digital element in sectors.

“That all plays into a bigger picture, I think we see that energy costs are spiralling for businesses at the moment. This has a knock-on effect on private sector wage inflation, and it’s great for some businesses that are able to keep up with that. But with other businesses, and especially looking at sectors like hospitality and retail, they can’t keep up and so we’re starting to see real shortages. And in a time when vacancies are reducing because businesses are looking to manage the costs, we’re seeing that their vacancies are still there. So they’re not able to fill them but they desperately need to, and that’s the real crunch point.”

For bp, Education and Employability Consultant Tom Thayer said a lot of forward planning starts with workforce data. He told the Level Up audience: “Some of that data could be assumption-driven, but supporting initiatives like the North East Chamber co-ordinating with the local Skills Improvement Plan and then feeding in that data, as we do as an organisation across different projects, our supply chain, the chamber, then having the regional view, you can identify where the pinch points are.

“And even if it’s assumption-driven, and its jobs and families, it’s a start. Then working with the likes of the TVCA, you start to map out what those interventions could look like. And that can be everything from early skills, investment skills, lesson plans aligned to the curriculum and to career pathways. So we’ve done a lot of that and are really excited about that expanding across the region.

“We are really thinking about that whole pipeline of engagement, and the tactical bits that you can do in partnership with local authorities, training providers, and making sure that actually everybody hears about those opportunities. How do you empower the enabler to talk to their young people in the classroom? Then how would you talk to parents and carers, make them climate literate, to understand the opportunities that are there for apprenticeships for their young people?”

Tom said it was also really important to make sure there were no barriers to learning, for instance “to ensure that you don’t invest in a skills boot camp that that people can’t access because they’re worried about losing benefits.”

Freeport director Nolan Gray said the more his team knows about a potential investor, the more they can put in place as a tailor-made landing strip.

“The more we understand about them, the more we understand about their requirements, we can help them and support them in their journey,” he said.

“With SeAH Wind, for example, we’ve been helping them and supporting them on that journey, as well as trying to innovate as well. And part of that innovation is about removing friction, because one of the things the Freeport is trying to do is say, ‘do we actually have to do that - couldn’t we actually do away with it?’

“So we’ve invested in the Centre for Digital Trade and Innovation, which is looking at removing friction, so instead of having to fill in all of that paperwork around customs facilitation with an outbound, you suddenly stop doing that and have digital strings of information, and that opens up more opportunity for machine-based learning.”

Nolan said this was also the time for radical thinking: “I was at a dinner recently where one business talked about a lot of difficulty recruiting and they found that actually the key skill was manual dexterity. Now they had been traditionally trying to appoint people from the manufacturing sector because manual dexterity was the key skill for them – but they then started advertising for hairdressers. And effectively all the positions were filled by hairdressers who have actually become some of their highest performing assets on the production line.

The Northern Echo: Tom Thayer of bp was one of the panel expertsTom Thayer of bp was one of the panel experts (Image: Newsquest)

“I think sometimes we need to consider the role and its skillset - when we asked for five years of experience do we really need it?”

Andy Kerr, Head of Economic Development at Durham County Council, said the council’s new economic strategy was done in partnership with many organisations, to make sure it was inclusive across the county.

“We’ve done it in partnership because we can’t do it all as a council, we don’t have all the levers but we can be the glue that holds some of that stuff together, that draws all the other partners together.

“What we do know from research, we know that the training is there for the skills that we need. It does exist, but it’s often about awareness around those jobs that exist in that area, and really inspiring young people and informing them around what those jobs are, which is absolutely central to our strategy.

“If you can get all the training providers, all the businesses aligned towards where your future vision is and having a really clear vision then those young people can see that there are going to be jobs in those areas and then demand courses because colleges are going to provide the courses that people want to do and they’ll be able to put bums on seats all day, every day.

The Northern Echo: Our Level Up audience at SeahamOur Level Up audience at Seaham (Image: Newsquest)

“If young people think they could go work in the space sector, then they will start to demand that and actually a lot of these digital things are really transformative for deprived communities. In the past, having higher paid occupations and advancing your career would be difficult for people needing to transcend the communities they grew up in. But now they all know digital and tech.

“Then, if you’ve got one business who’s going to come and relocate there, they struggle to attract people to come and relocate because they think, ‘if I lose my job there, then I’ve got no other job to go into’. So you’ve got to build these clusters of capability, not just sectors.”

At Cummins, David Hodgson, OEM Account Manager and STEM ambassador, said the company had just increased its workforce to 1800.

“In terms of kind of skills and skills shortages and gaps, our strategy is towards decarbonisation which involves hydrogen technology and battery technology, as well as the manufacturing capabilities we’ve got now.

“We’ve had a £20million investment in the last five years and it’s really changed the whole perception of the manufacturing side of things. We’re bringing in cobots now to basically do the manufacturing, which is taking the skills to another level.

“So we have to look at our internal skills, and are we powering the potential to change those skills. We’ve got a lot of initiatives ongoing now within the Darlington facility to get people to think about that. So maybe a production operator or high level senior manager can take a couple of days out the schedule, to go and experience what it’s like in different sector, because I think sometimes it’s not the job you’re doing now, it’s what potential you have.

“We want to make sure that everything’s in place for them to ultimately enjoy the workplace and give them that inspiration, and that push to take you into a different area of the business.

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“Yet there are still some stereotypes in particular jobs. You look at the engineering sector – and it’s great to see it coming back - and you say, right, draw me what an engineer looks like, they will draw a ‘Bob the Builder’ figure. That’s not what it is. So it’s really important as businesses to get these youngsters in at seven or eight years old to get this understanding.”

Questions from the audience included Rosie Lawson from Sunderland College who asked about support and funding for Sixth Forms as a key stage of education and skills and her fellow student Amie Lee who questioned Patrick Melia about the stability of Sunderland’s success and its longevity.

Michael Moore talked about flexible working and what the future workforce might look like, and believe board member Kelly Anderson pointed out that discussing the full potential of a diverse and fully-skilled was made more challenging by the fact that our panel was entirely made up of men. (Level Up invites our partners to send the panel members, so it is purely coincidental how it finally compiles itself, but it is definitely something we need to keep an eye on!)

The event finished with an hour of networking over a lunch provided by catering students from East Durham College.


  • The next live event is planned for June 29th in Newcastle, where we will discuss Digital and Tech.
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