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‘You have to go where the work is’: why young people are leaving Wales

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Students Kyle Davies and Timothy Bird were to be found working on a jet engine in the aerospace centre at the University of South Wales’ Treforest campus, just south of Pontypridd.

Both agreed they loved the area – the green hills, the sense of community, the culture and history. But they may have to leave to leave to find work.

“I’d like to develop some experience here then later become a contractor, travelling all over the place,” said Davies, 22, who grew up in west Wales. “This will always be home but I’d like to see the world.”

View image in fullscreenThird year students Timothy Bird, right, and Kyle Davies, in the Aerospace Department at the University of South Wales. Photograph: Gareth Phillips/The Guardian

Bird, 33, originally from Wolverhampton, said he would prefer to stay in south Wales if he can find a job locally but will leave if he has to. “I’d like to work on airlines.” He said there were some opportunities to do that here. The global aircraft engine giant GE Aviation has a maintenance plant nearby and there is a cluster of possible employees around Cardiff airport in the Vale of Glamorgan.

“But I may have to move to the south-east of England or Scotland. You have to go where the work is.”

Lecturer Jon McGee, who spent 29 years in the RAF before becoming a teacher, said the aerospace courses at USW were hugely popular but he reckoned that only 5% would find work in the area.

Rashid Al Shareif, 20, who left Abu Dhabi to study in south Wales, said he would be keen to stay for a while after he graduated. “I love it here, even the weather but I think I’ll go back to Abu Dhabi. There are more opportunities there.”

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In the 19th century, people from across the UK migrated to the valleys of south Wales to work in the mines. After the decline of the coal and steel industries, fortunes of towns like Pontypridd plunged. The idea took hold that a young person with ambitions had to “get out to get on” and English cities tempted them away.

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Speaking at the USW’s student union building, which has lovely autumnal views of the hills across the valley, Ellis Thomas, 20, a final year history student, said as a boy he used to dream of packing up and leaving for the US. But now he’s keen to stay and become a secondary school teacher in south Wales, as long at the work is there.

“My aim and dream is to teach in Wales,” he said. “Wales is home, it’s got a really community feel. It may sound counter-intuitive but Wales has a lot of problems, that’s why I want to stay. Wales has given a lot to me. I want to give back. I understand the area.”

He said places such as Pontypridd were on the up. There is a shiny new library and Transport for Wales has moved its headquarters to the town. “It has got better, more jobs. RCT (Rhondda Cynon Taf) has loads of potential.”

Phoebe Lacey-Freeman, 22, a theatre and drama student, said she too used to dream of a career in London but now has ambitions of setting up a theatre company with friends in Cardiff. “London, Bristol and Manchester area a draw for some but there’s a lot going on in Cardiff in the arts. You’re a bigger fish in a smaller pond there.”

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View image in fullscreenThe town of Pontypridd, South Wales. ‘The environment is calm and peaceful, the pace of life isn’t quite as fast. It’s beautiful,’ says Zufishan Ghani, the academic affairs co-ordinator at USW. Photograph: Gareth Phillips/The Guardian

There is also a feeling among some of the students that an England run by Boris Johnson’s government is not such a draw. “I like the way our Welsh government handled the pandemic,” said Lacey-Freeman.

Zufishan Ghani, the academic affairs co-ordinator at USW, said she felt that the many overseas students (she has recently arrived from Pakistan) would be tempted to stay if there are enough jobs. “The environment is calm and peaceful, the pace of life isn’t quite as fast. It’s beautiful. And the hills are wonderful.”

Sian Taylor, the chief executive of the student union, said it wasn’t always a bad thing if young people moved away. “Potentially they come back a more rounded person but you need to have incentives to draw them back – well-paid jobs, good housing, developing communities. Good reasons for them to return.”

Of course, there are some who are just desperate to move away. Chay and Sonni, a pair of twenty-something builders, were unequivocal. “I can’t wait to get out of here,” said Chay, “It’s boring, nothing to do.” He is plotting to take his skills to the US. Sonni said that by the end of the year he’ll be in the Middle East “More money, more opportunities, more sun,” he said.