By Vishal Chopra
UNCERTAINTY has become a depressingly familiar word in the Scottish business world in recent times. Never before has the country witnessed such unpredictable political change, while simultaneously facing the threat of one of our most important industries – oil and gas – suffering a crisis that risks its long-term viability.
At such times, it can be difficult to acknowledge and focus on our strengths, but that is exactly what we must do. Despite the threat of Brexit and an energy downturn, the Scottish economy remains highly competitive on the global stage. Last year, the number of foreign direct investment projects in the country reached a record high. Meanwhile, exports – despite suffering a slight dip recently – are contributing more than £27.5 billion to the national economy, and are expected to grow as businesses take advantage of a weakened pound.
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Through increased support from both the Scottish and UK governments, greater cross-sector collaboration and a genuine commitment from all parties to focus on growth, Scotland has placed itself in a secure and competitive position. It is from that place that we must now look at how we maintain our global edge as we prepare to address some of the most complex challenges we have ever witnessed.
The secret to ensuring we stay on top is investing the right time and skills in our young people. This year, more than 27,000 Scottish students are preparing to attend university or college. It is a record year with the largest number of young Scots being accepted to further or higher education institutions. We should be proud that so many of our future leaders are embracing the opportunity that education provides. But, education alone is not enough to create the skilled and diverse workforce that is essential in a vibrant, sustainable economy.
At Grant Thornton in Scotland, we are providing opportunities for more young people than ever before. Throughout the summer, 10 interns were given their first taste of life in professional services, while 16 trainees are preparing to join us at the start of their careers – four coming directly from school. UK-wide, we have increased our school leaver intake by 47 per cent because we have already started to see the positive results that increased social mobility and diversity can have on both your bottom line and wider society.
Grant Thornton is not alone. Throughout the industry, more and more firms are signing up to the Access Accountancy programme – an initiative that encourages people from a diverse range of backgrounds to get involved in accountancy, creating a more equal, socially diverse industry. Launched two years ago, the scheme is aiming to create up to 4,000 work placements in just five years. It is an example of businesses focusing on building a sustainable future for our sector with young people developing the right skills to become tomorrow’s leaders of industry.
While there is much to celebrate, there is also a great deal more that can be done. Recent research from the Centre for Economic Performance suggested that Britain has roughly the same levels of social mobility as the United States, but trails other nations with similar demographics and economic history, such as Canada, the Nordic countries and Germany. Even more concerning is the evidence that our standing in this field is heading in a downward trend. The researchers suggest disparities in access to education are the route cause. But, while access to education is undoubtedly a significant factor, we need to look at a wider purpose and the role businesses can play in empowering our young people with key skills in entrepreneurialism, finance and enterprise.
The business world has a key role to play in empowering the next generation with the skills that are required to meet the raft of future challenges on the horizon. We need to celebrate educational achievement, but also recognise that there are other skills and abilities required to create a rounded, more socially mobile economy.
There is no escaping the fact that we live in increasingly uncertain times and face challenges that place our future growth ambitions at risk. But, by working together to create an economy based on shared success and investing in and empowering our young people, we can continue to flourish and celebrate Scotland’s international success.
Vishal Chopra is Head of Tax in Scotland at Grant Thornton UK LLP