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Mark Creighton



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Upskilling: why the UK needs a capabilities revolution

UK businesses are facing critical skills gaps. Now is the time to address these.

The skills gap has undoubtedly been widening for some time now, but little has been done to permanently solve the problem. While acknowledgement of the government’s commitment to addressing the gap was apparent in this year’s Queen Speech, it is no longer enough to meet the massive challenges our country faces.

The widening gap between business needs and people capabilities has a trickle-down effect. 

With an innate feeling something was missing from the conversation, we researched this issue for our Beyond Skills report. We discovered that the pandemic widened the skills gap to the point where the real issue now lies with capabilities, rather than just skills. Over 60% of respondents across all sectors surveyed agreed there was a vast imbalance between capabilities their business needed, and those they had. The lack of investment in meeting the skills gap now means we have a lack of capabilities, which we perceive as a deep-rooted knowledge required across the entirety of an organisation.

Facing the truth about our capabilities gap

This capabilities gap is present in both individuals and businesses, and it is negatively impacting growth as evidenced in our research. Findings showcased that a training strategy pre-2020 was strongly correlated with business growth during the pandemic (71%). Those who had no strategy or one that was not fit for purpose during this period were far more likely to see a decline (61%).

Many businesses responded to their capabilities problem by recruiting to fill gaps, an expensive and ultimately short-term fix in comparison to investment in good quality learning. That risk is one that could leave some of the workforce further behind and without the necessary capabilities to achieve job security.

Businesses need to take stock of their capability needs

It's clear that businesses are conflicted over what to do, and perhaps as a result are over-indexing on traditional skill sets. Not only do capability gaps vary across job roles and industries, but so do the attitudes around learning and development as a whole. These complexities are resulting in little or rushed action by businesses, leaving many employees struggling to fill gaps on their own.

As a result, this is placing strain on staff wellbeing, and personal finances, too – 61% reported concerns about the impact of a lack of capabilities on mental health in their organisation, and 57% admitted to seeking training outside of their current role. This speaks volumes about the possible repercussions of moving forward with business as usual, without addressing the capabilities gap or implementing change to keep up with our ever-evolving working landscape.

The widening gap between business needs and people capabilities has a trickle-down effect on many other areas, including fear of future redundancies. This was expressed as a concern for over half of all respondents. Capabilities can protect a business during tumultuous times, allowing it to pivot and adopt agile working habits quickly. This can only be achieved, however, if senior executives take stock of their business and people needs and invest widely in their people to foster a more agile and diverse workforce.

Collaboration among leaders is necessary for change

Interestingly, our research highlighted a disconnect between executive leaders and HR, suggesting the latter grappled with the severity of the concept much more than those actually making the decisions. This became clear when examining business priorities in 2020, and evidently there is a need for education on the value of building capabilities.

Just over half of executive leadership agreed that their business had prioritised survival over building capabilities, in comparison to 69% of their HR counterparts. In the financial services sector, the majority of respondents wished learning and development was taken more seriously in the boardroom with only 65% agreeing it currently was.

Even worse, nearly three-quarters of respondents in the fast-moving consumer goods sector felt learning and development wasn’t taken seriously by senior executives. Of those, 61% worried that a lack of investment in training would impact long-term productivity. The picture painted is one of concern across all industries, but the answer, in reality, is quite simple.  

We all have a role to play in employee development

In 2021 and beyond, we need to do much more to give adults an equal opportunity to retrain or upskill in the workplace. This should happen regardless of reluctance from employees or indecision on training strategies. Businesses need to invest widely in their people to truly level up our economy and diversify our workforce.

Accelerating learning and development budgets to effectively build capabilities will be a crucial piece of this puzzle. It will also require much more alignment and involvement from employers – both senior executives and HR – who see first-hand the missing capabilities required to enable agile mindsets and efficiencies across our nation’s working landscape. Only then can decisions be made, based on a holistic take of the state of our workforce.

We all have a role to play in the future of our economy. Profound change can happen by allowing the conversation to move beyond skills through to a capabilities revolution.  

Interested in this topic? Read Skills gap analysis: How well do you understand the skills needs in your business?

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