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Addressing the skills shortage


Recent research from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) have revealed that more than one in five unoccupied job roles are the result of the burgeoning ‘work-skills gap’. Even though the figures show that job vacancies in England have returned to pre-recession levels, ‘skills shortage vacancies’ – where businesses are unable to find recruits with the appropriate qualifications and experience to fill vacant or new roles – are growing twice as fast as available jobs. As the UK economy starts to show signs of an upturn, this lack of skills threatens to hold back the pace of recovery.

This problem appears to be hitting some industries harder than others, with the crisis most severe in sectors such as manufacturing, construction and plumbing, as well as in health and social care. I suspect one reason behind the issue is that entrants to the workforce aren’t being qualified and trained in the way employers need them to be. Despite all political parties talking about enabling  employers to take the lead when it comes to designing skills development, there is clearly a continuing disconnect between the interests of the education and skills establishment, and the needs of employers which needs to be urgently addressed, particularly in these worst-hit sectors.

As I approach retirement and look back on the 27 years I have spent at the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) – 17 of which leading the organisation – I believe that the UK qualification system still needs the overhaul I’ve been campaigning for, for much of this time. Government frameworks aren’t currently fit for purpose – at present 80% of employer training takes place outside of these. Educators and employers need to be working more closely together in the future to align the training and qualifications on offer with what employers need, to ensure that the talent pipeline into the professions is nurtured.

A second way to help tackle this concerning skills shortage is to look at and challenge existing recruitment practices. For far too long there has been a strong emphasis on recruiting people from the higher education system – university graduates – at the expense of young people who have been on alternative academic and vocational learning journeys. This narrow view now needs to change as employers may well be missing out on recruits with the very same skill sets they are so desperately seeking by only looking to hire from a limited talent pool. It needs to be recognised that high quality apprenticeships and ‘on-the-go’ vocational learning produce employees that possess specific skills needed by employers to get them to the top. There has been a great deal of research that shows that vocational qualifications actually make young people more employable than their academically-trained counterparts*. Much of this is based on the views of employers themselves, but their opinions don’t seem to translate into hiring policies. While vocational skills are still seen as a poor second to university, employers will continue to struggle. We need to open up the whole recruitment process, with employers looking objectively at the types of skills and people they need then trying to find them rather than plumping for the graduate with the best academic qualifications.

One legacy of narrow recruiting structures, which is also contributing to this work-skills gap, the lack of diversity they have left UK businesses with. Let’s look at our top businesses. Did you know the average FTSE 100 CEO is 53, male, and an Oxbridge graduate? While most businesses continue to be led by a certain person, it’s likely that they will recruit and nurture those same kinds of people. Unfortunately, this is becoming increasingly counterproductive when it comes to building businesses that are sustainably successful in the long term. Diverse businesses – whose workforces and leadership teams are made up of people of different ages, backgrounds and genders – perform better, therefore talent needs to be attracted from a wide range of different backgrounds. This is something I’ve championed at AAT – one of the things I’ve enjoyed the most has been working with such a diverse mix of people – of all ages and from all backgrounds. It’s been truly inspiring to see people joining us as admin assistants and working their way up into senior roles.

The figures from UKCES highlighting the growing skills gap have raised an important issue, and in my opinion, these should be urging employers, educators, and all parties involved to tackle this problem and bring about positive change. The great fear is that businesses won’t be able to make the most of the economic upturn, without the right people working in and leading them, so the sooner this problem can be challenged and overcome the better the economic prospects will be for the country.

Jane Scott Paul OBE is retiring as CEO of AAT next month after 17 years in the role.

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