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Northern Powerhouse Perspective: CEO Ged Mason

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Speaking with Insider magazine, Morson CEO Ged Mason OBE outlines what the initiative means to him, the need to nurture future tech talent, and the importance of infrastructure to the North's future growth.

What does the Northern Powerhouse mean to you?

The devolving of power to local regions has delivered benefits that are tailored to the needs of the regional population, rather than our national needs. The importance of efficient transport links has always been a clear priority within the Northern Powerhouse, and it's promising to see that local government has woken up to realise that, done well, it will be an essential backbone to our connectivity.

Leaders and likeminded businesses, like the Morson Group, are also working hard to promote the extensive skills base available in the North, providing increased localised opportunities to drive regeneration and prosperity, compared to previous eras when we risked losing some of our most valuable assets to the south. This means we are continuing to attract the attention of overseas investors, which in turn is reviving the industries the north is historically known for and associated with, such as manufacturing and technology – areas we specialise in.

Covid-19 has shone a spotlight on why both these sectors are so crucial to the Northern Powerhouse. While the great remote working experiment was a success in some sectors, there will always be jobs that simply cannot be delivered from home. For such roles, our road infrastructure and rail networks are crucial to ensuring businesses can source the very best regional talent. We're committed to unlocking the local skills base and providing them with the ability to access employment with leading businesses in the North.

Six years have passed since the phrase 'Northern Powerhouse' was first coined. Has enough happened since then?

I feel it's been a little diluted over more recent years, having fallen into the shadow of the General Election, Brexit and now Covid-19. But the same priorities still apply today as at the beginning: to create jobs, to deliver infrastructure and to harness local budgets. Now is a fantastic time to take stock of what we stand for as a community, look at how these massive social-economic factors have influenced us, and try to reignite the momentum the Northern Powerhouse had at its launch.

Decisions must be made now about how our infrastructure will improve, as these projects are only getting more expensive; we are lacking behind EU countries, with some of our northern rail networks archaic in comparison. Whilst the government did commit to some of its plans for the electrification of the rail network, I hope the Northern Powerhouse can lobby for this to be pushed forward as not only does it create jobs to deliver the work but provides significant benefits for future generations. If this can be delivered, it will be a major step forward and will open so many new opportunities for so many people, and the Northern Powerhouse will have been central to that progress.

How is the appointment of metro mayors starting to help the initiative?

The devolution of power has amplified some of the most powerful and influential voices in the north, enabling them to address some truly important and difficult topics that we as a region experience more harshly than others in the UK. I look at Andy Burnham and what he has done for Greater Manchester, and I think other metro mayors can learn from him and start thinking about how they can deliver the same level of focus. He has been instrumental in driving real change in how the government sees the North and has been personally involved in schemes which have revolutionised our cities. Burnham isn't afraid to be outspoken, to put his community at the heart of his role and we should consider ourselves lucky that he represents the North because he uses his position to our advantage.

What needs to be done to help the North recover from the Covid-19 outbreak?

Northern cities were impacted by some of the very first local lockdowns – and it won't be the only time it happens for us in the coming months. Our main HQ is in Manchester, meaning we have been affected too, but we'd had one eye on the chance we could face an overnight change in guidance so had already taken several steps to minimise interference with our operations.

Covid-19 had already changed the mindset of a lot of people in terms of how and where they work, but local lockdowns will have influenced that again. Now, we're encouraging clients who work in areas that aren't yet re-locked down to act similarly – prepare for rapid change, prioritise the mental health of your teams, and communicate, communicate, communicate.

We are also focusing our efforts on supporting clients to create new roles in areas that are in demand, and redeploying workers from struggling sectors to flourishing ones to preserve jobs, protect livelihoods and rebuild businesses. But this is more of an industry challenge, as opposed to regional.

As a business, we've often been badged as an engineering recruiter and whilst our heritage and name was carved out here, we support such a broad range of sectors including IT, professional services, construction and more - building bespoke specialist teams to support these areas. We're also supporting a number of digital start-ups that have huge ambitions and need some of the most specialist IT skills that we have ever seen. The migration to home working is a huge benefit to employers in such sectors, as they will be empowered to widen their talent pools and consider team members who aren't on their doorstep.

Several locations have long been vying for the title of 'the UK's Silicon Valley' and there's no reason why the North cannot be crowned the best for tech innovation. Manchester and Liverpool are already formidable hotspots in the tech sector, boasting some of the largest digital turnovers in the country. If our tech scene is to rival that of California, then we need to invest in future tech talent today, through quality apprenticeships that support entry-level workers, those with the transferable skills to transition from other sectors, whilst also upskilling professionals that are already in the industry. Such a focus would naturally create a ripple effect that leads to further investment and motivation for overseas companies to look beyond borders and plant their roots firmly in the North.

What is the single main issue you would like to see dominate the Northern Powerhouse agenda?

Infrastructure and skills, trade agreements and open trade with the EU. We're seen as a 'divorcee' but it's crucial that we can still tap into talent pools from around the globe to enable businesses to freely recruit and deploy a truly mobile workforce and support projects through key peaks and troughs. Additionally, encouraging more overseas countries and businesses to invest and buy British will help to create more jobs on home soil. We must think ahead; today's primary school children are our future train drivers, engineers and construction workers – so another focus must be making undesirable sectors aspirational to all.

Is there enough collaboration between towns and cities across the North?

In all walks of life and areas of business, you can always do more. We tend to prioritise and look after the interest of our region – in personal and professional capacities. That includes the north, but if Covid-19 has taught us one thing it should be how we can all take a more joined-up approach, rather than being blinkered and close-sighted. Strong voices are needed to lead this force and change people's attitudes, so that we can truly work together collaboratively, for the greater good than personal gain.

How would the success of the Northern Powerhouse agenda benefit your business?

Any greater flexibility to allow us to attract and retain a mobile talent pool would be beneficial to us as a business and to our clients and their own supply chains. Making sure the North is a vibrant place to work and live would be advantageous – this includes providing better homes, schools, hospitals and community facilities so that our villages, towns and cities are seen as aspirational hubs which people actively seek out. From our perspective, infrastructure is key to so much; get that right and everything else snowballs.

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