Challenged by Professor Chik Collins, director of the Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH), to describe the changes in Glasgow’s economy since 2003, I spent some time interrogating regional economic data published by the Scottish Government. Given the steady – and not altogether unfair – criticism Glasgow is receiving for its current appearance, it’s worth sharing the results.

The occasion was the opening seminar in the 20th series of events the GCPH has presented on the enormous task we all face in improving Glasgow’s health record. That this is important to the residents of Scotland’s biggest city is obvious but the weight of ill health on the buoyancy of Glasgow’s economy makes it a business issue too.

It is recognised as a barrier to delivering the city region’s strategic aims in delivering both a more productive and a more inclusive economy. The eight local authorities that make up the metropolitan region have set an explicit 2030 target to reduce by nearly 25,000 the number of Glaswegians not actively engaged in the workforce because of their poor health.

Back in 2003, there was a clear belief that amongst the most important factors in improving life chances was access to a good job. It was less than a decade since the continuous fall in jobs across the city had reversed and one of the early engines of growth – the International Financial Services District – was in its infancy.

There is a story to be told about the success Glasgow has had in growing its employment base; in a variety of sectors including financial services, digital technology and engineering.

While the Scottish Government’s regional data reached back no further than 2010 there was a clear message. On indicator after indicator the Glasgow city region economy has both grown and performed better than the Scottish national average.

In the 12 years since 2010, employment grew by 12% compared to 9% for Scotland and with 892,000 jobs has now reached its highest point. The number of VAT registered businesses has risen 22% from 42,535 to 51,785, faster again than Scotland (13%) and, notably, the Edinburgh City Region (16%). The working age employment rate has risen to 73.3%, up 4.4 points and rising faster than the overall Scottish increase of 1.8 points. Unemployment has also declined more quickly compared with Scotland, falling from 6% to 3.2%. Metropolitan Glasgow has an improving economy both in the absolute and relative to the Scottish performance.

Economic inactivity which measures those who are neither in work nor registered unemployed has also fallen from 26.7% to 24.3% and again at a faster pace than for Scotland. This figure, though, remains uncomfortably high and with almost a third directly related to poor health.

These trends fit with the message I hear from Chamber members of persistent difficulty in filling job roles of all skill levels and across almost all sectors. Compared to 2003, we are no longer saying there are no jobs; quite the opposite is true. We are worryingly short of skills and talent to fill the posts available. From software analysts to welders, project managers to bus drivers, employers have been exploring all forms of incentive to find the staff they need.

But it was equally alarming to see the trends my fellow panellists were presenting on public health outcomes. Life expectancy in Scotland, after many decades of improvement, stalled in 2012 and is now falling – something unprecedented in modern times outwith war and the pandemic. The gap between the wealthiest and poorest communities is widening. The jobs are now there but the barriers to taking them up appear to be getting worse.

The Withers report on the Scottish skills system is one opportunity to make changes that could help knock down some of those barriers. Making it quicker and easier to get the skills that potential employees need is an important step. But tackling deteriorating health and widening health inequalities must also be crucial. To that end, Glasgow Chamber will listen to the thinking of Chik Collins and his team to see what more our business community can do to contribute.

Stuart Patrick is chief executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce