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Suzana Lopes

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Skills in the UK: Weathering the economic storm


Suzana Lopes looks to the future of the UK's skilled workforces - and how to address the shortages.
The Autumn statement last week showed a continuation of tough times ahead – for the economy, individuals and businesses alike. For businesses in particular, it’s important now more than ever to ensure staff have the right skills to help them succeed. So it was reassuring to see in the latest funding statement from BIS continued prioritisation of funding for maths and English, skills which are essential for helping people progress and perform effectively in work. But skills shortages are still an issue and employers have a crucial part to play in identifying and supporting the skills needed for growth.
Some sectors are bearing the brunt of these skills shortages. Skilled trades in sectors such as manufacturing, wholesale and retail and hotels and restaurants are the worst affected, with employers experiencing the greatest difficulty in meeting their demand for skills. A survey by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) found one in three vacancies for trades such as electricians, plumbers and chefs were hard to fill because of skills shortages among applicants. Job specific skills as well as softer skills such as organisation, problem solving and team working were all cited as areas where skills were lacking. There is also a huge need in the IT sector. By 2015, 90% of jobs will need digital skills but Europe is in danger of suffering a shortage of up to 700,000 IT professionals by 2015.
The impact of a talent shortage on these sectors can be devastating in a recession. According to the UKCES survey, those organisations experiencing skills shortages reported an increase in workload for their staff, risking a negative effect on morale and retention. They also reported struggling to meet customer service objectives, delaying development of new products and services and losing business to competitors. These businesses will struggle to grow and develop without the right skills.
"In an ever-changing economic environment companies need to adapt to ensure they are equipping employees with the skills needed to ensure a thriving and profitable business."

Despite these challenges, the skills outlook over the next five to ten years is good. Skills are high on the government agenda and heavy investment in training is having a positive impact. To ensure the outlook remains positive, we need a skills system which can respond to the challenges it faces, led by employers who invest in training for growth.
Vocational qualifications and apprenticeships, which give young people the experience and job specific skills needed, are key to addressing the skills shortages, particularly in those sectors where the shortages are most pronounced. We know employers play a large part in this and so it was good to see the Richard Review on apprenticeships talking about making sure these qualifications are reflective of the workplace and therefore must be designed and delivered in partnership with employers.
These and other qualifications need to be underpinned by a continued focus on using innovative technology to make learning as accessible and flexible as possible. More and more people are using things like mobiles, the internet and social networking to access learning and businesses can reap the benefits of this flexible style of learning with cost savings, time savings and an increase in the volume of learning being delivered. Reassuringly, a great proportion of British businesses now understand the benefits of using technology to upskill their employees. Towards Maturity found 90% of businesses in the UK look for innovative use of learning technology when choosing training partners.
Technology also has the potential to transform the jobseeking and vacancy matching process in the same way learning is being transformed. This would realise benefits for jobseekers, employers and ultimately the state in terms of reducing the welfare bill.
There's no doubt times are tough. However, the signs are the UK is heading out of recession. By working together – with business, the government and individuals each playing their part – and utilising technology I believe the UK can come through this economic storm in a much stronger position.
Suzana Lopes is senior vice president, sales, of learndirect                                         


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