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Diving deep into the professional sector to drive productivity

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Establishing ‘Commissions’ to consider evidence, opine and then recommend on key topics linked to regional life appears to be the order of the day; dare I say, a political fashion of sorts. Blink and you’ve missed another one.

The West Midlands Combined Authority’s (WMCA) Productivity & Skills Commission has had its first session and is setting the direction for its enquiries following a call for evidence.

Thirty-five submissions were received, including from BPS Birmingham which is featured in the Summary of Responses. A detailed data analysis and evidence review is now being produced which will result in reports on each of five productivity and skills drivers – innovation, skills, enterprise, investment and competition.

It is clear from the Summary that a number of our key themes –the skills gap is region’s greatest weakness; careers advice is “patchy” at best and that “good work” is as important as salary in attracting and retaining talent – are widely supported.

The business, professional and financial services (BFPS) sector will be the subject of the Commission’s first ‘deep dive’. Our sector will be the basis for a prototype of sector-focused Productivity and Skills Plans.

We believe the Commission has the potential to create better connectivity between the output of local education institutions and the needs of employers, including with better careers information and pathways.

This is the third of the commissions announced by WMCA upon its inception, with the Land Commission and the Mental Health Commission having already reported back.

As if that wasn’t enough, there’s now going to be a Leadership Commission to help ensure the leadership of the future is representative of the region it serves. Oh, and a WMCA Finance Commission… are you keeping up?

Having established the BPS Future Commission in 2012, which investigated issues around attracting and retaining young professional talent, this may be the only time in my life where I’ve been ahead in any form of fashion!

More seriously, our report – authored by Warwick Business School – did have clear and tangible recommendations, such that the impact is satisfyingly evident in the sector today.

The context for these Commissions, though, is quite different from five years ago when we were taking evidence and publishing recommendations.

For one, Birmingham was in the very early days of the devolution agenda; we now have a West Midlands Mayor and talks on “Devo II Deal”.

Furthermore, the case for the professional services sector as a significant contributor to the regional economy had to be constantly re-made to policymakers. This has been a source of constant bemusement for many in the second largest contributor to the regional economy with one of the most positive sector growth forecasts.

Compare this to Mayor Street’s speech alongside Business Secretary Greg Clark on industrial strategy at the University of Birmingham recently. Andy Street said the focus on:

“automotive, life sciences, low carbon…and of course in professional services”

was paying off in Greater Birmingham.

The rhetoric has changed. It had never been “and of course professional services.” EVER.

The Business Secretary continued the theme in his speech:

 “From cars to components, from financial services to computer games….this region depends absolutely on trade with the world.”

I’d like to think that BPS Birmingham has had an instrumental role in changing this picture over the years. Not just because of some podium statements by political leaders, but due to the considerable amount of time the Chair of the BPS Birmingham Board, Ian Barnes, and the team have spent working on the plan of action for the WMCA Productivity and Skills Commission.

Why? Well, for one Ian is a member of the Commission’s Productivity Leadership Group representing the BPFS sector.

For the first time in my memory of working in this arena, BPFS is first on the list.

To some that might seem surprising. After all, as a sector, we tend to employ some of the brightest and best qualified people around and spend our days advising other businesses on how to innovate, grow and protect the value created.

Is it not counter-intuitive, some might say, to direct resources to help such businesses do the very same for themselves?

Possibly, but I would argue that such an assumption is risky given the size of our economic contribution; the reliance of other sectors on its strength for their growth and by extension the strategic economic plans for the region, which assume continued ascendance of the regional advisory services hub.

BPFS sector businesses are naturally risk averse, collaborative on the one hand (eg. considering supply of future talent), but utterly secretive on the other (eg. ability to innovate collectively and see improvements through the supply chain as is more visible in other sectors like automotive or advanced manufacturing).

Our sector – as well as the Digital & Creative sectors – has the largest gap compared to UK Gross Value Added (GVA) per head.

On the ground, however, there is a feeling of being asked to do more for less in the post credit-crunch world in professional services firms.

The Commission will now develop a set of hypothesis to test why the gap appears.

Chaired by Dr Andy Palmer, president and chief executive of luxury car maker Aston Martin Lagonda, WMCA’s Productivity and Skills Commission has set out to “provide impartial support and advice to the authority as it seeks to reduce unemployment, improve people’s job skills and secure better productivity.”

Working with colleagues on the Commission, WMCA and others including the Black Country Consortium’s Economic Intelligence Unit and academics from our leading institutions, we will be relying on data and evidence from BPS Birmingham members and professionals more widely to build a really rich picture of the sector.

Researchers will be contacting businesses to gather information in the coming weeks, probably starting with the financial services sub-sector followed by the legal and accounting sub-sectors and then support services.

We will also be looking to colleagues in the sector to help validate the emerging ideas as they are developed by the Commission.

If you would like to know more or to contribute to this important work, please email

– Hilary Smyth-Allen, Executive Director, BPS Birmingham