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Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

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Why is the UK not feeling the benefit of a better qualified workforce?


The number of workers who are overqualified for their current job role is rising, and a 'one size fits all' approach to education and training is failing both employees and UK businesses. It's not too late to put that right. 

Question: What do you say to an arts graduate?

Answer: Can I have fries with that, please?

OK, so it’s an old joke - but it might explain one of the root causes for the UK’s productivity issues.

In a report from the Office for National Statistics we learned that one third of UK workers are in jobs which do not match their qualifications. One sixth is overqualified and this number is rising. One sixth is underqualified and this proportion is slowly declining. 

The latter statistic is easier to explain. As more and more people have higher level qualifications, so-called grade inflation takes place. Roles which once called for GCSEs now require level 3 qualifications, or A Levels. Jobs for 18 year old school leavers become the preserve of graduates and graduate level jobs increasingly require Masters degrees.

As an example, let’s look at the NHS; since 2013 all new Nurses have required a bachelor’s level qualification, but 72% do not hold a degree. In other words, almost three-quarters of all nurses are, technically, ‘underqualified’. 

Stuck in a rut

The problem with this rapid shift in the work landscape often only comes to light when someone wants to move job and finds themselves stuck in post because although they have the required experience to perform the new role, they do not have the qualifications to support their application.

Perhaps one way we can increase UK productivity is to stop treating people with significant levels of education as though they were barely literate or numerate. 

The overqualified people doing jobs which are 'beneath them is a bigger problem. As a parent of young adults I know that many young graduates take jobs for which they are overqualified. Leaving university with massive debts makes the prospect of holding out for a job more in line with your recent studies somewhat scarier than once it was.

The challenge again comes when they finally spot a job which more closely matches their qualifications, but find that their undergraduate course content is now two or three years out of date. What’s more, another whole batch of graduates has been released on to the market place to compete for the same roles. So our contact centres, coffee shops and care homes are stuffed with graduates. Those who would have been quite capable of undertaking those jobs in earlier times, have even fewer opportunities.

The productivity problem

A better qualified workforce should be great for UK productivity, shouldn’t it? We should expect those that have had the benefit of university education, or a couple of extra years in school or college, to be more capable, quicker to learn and therefore more productive. Yet, as our position languishing as the least productive of the major economies (with the exception of Japan) has shown, we are not enjoying the premium of a more educated workforce.

This looks set to continue when we look at another initiative to increase the skills of the UK workforce. Apprenticeships have been hailed as a great success by the government, with a commitment to deliver 3 million by 2020.

However, when Alan Milburn – the government’s Social Mobility Tsar investigated apprenticeships he found that those who should be working towards a level 3 qualification (A Level equivalent) were actually completing level 2 courses (equivalent to the GCSEs they had already earned at school) and those who were entering apprenticeships at an age and with qualifications which meant that they could have been studying for a degree were taking qualifications equivalent to those they had already gained in FE College or in sixth form.

An underestimated workforce

I am reminded of a project I did some years ago in which I observed an induction for a major supermarket. The programme had been written centrally and distributed to be delivered by store colleagues to new starters.

The programme was aimed at a pretty low common denominator – the content was laboriously gone through despite its lack of complexity, the questions asked were insulting to anyone who had remained remotely conscious during the previous two hours (which, admittedly, many did not).

I spoke to the team about the relatively low level of the content included and they were adamant that this was required. Basically, they thought those recruited to do most of the part time jobs in store were not very bright. After all, why else would anyone want to be a shelf stacker?

We need to free people to do the jobs which need doing, in the most efficient way possible and to be rewarded appropriately for their contribution. 

In fact, the group I observed were 16 of the brightest people I had ever worked with - four were studying for A Levels and had a firm grasp on their future career direction, five were already studying for degrees, three were involved in post graduate study. The remaining four were all women needing a part-time job which fitted in with their caring responsibilities. All had post 16 qualifications including two graduates.

So perhaps one way we can increase UK productivity is to stop treating people with significant levels of education as though they were barely literate or numerate. Giving our new recruits a personalised route through induction (or on-boarding as the modern parlance has it) which recognises them as individuals with differing levels of knowledge, skills and prior experience seems eminently sensible.

Simplification and personalisation

I was recently shown a learning pathway tool which enables all components of a new starter’s induction to be delivered through a series of one to ones and work based tasks; easily personalised and highly efficient. In this model a new member of staff could be productive right from the off.

As well as tactical changes, we have to think about a strategic shift in how we do workplace learning and development. Here’s what former Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills, Sajid Javed, said about this when launching the government’s Fixing the Foundations strategy to tackle productivity:

“Part of the problem lies in our system of training. Enter the professional and technical education system today and you’ll be faced with a blizzard of complicated and overlapping qualifications, often with no obvious pathway to a decent job. So we’re going to simplify and streamline the system, replacing thousands of qualifications with clear set of routes that allow for progression to high level skills.”

Javid’s prescription for increased UK productivity was to push for the creation of additional institutions to provide centralised education – a one size fits all response to a multi-faceted problem.

This was despite the evidence in Milburn’s report that we have a significant number of people being directed to qualifications which are no better than they already hold, or the ONS figures showing an increasing proportion of the workforce in jobs for which they are patently over-qualified.

Taking ownership

In the absence of any kind of sensible, evidence based approach to UK productivity or industrial policy from the government, UK employers will need to take action to boost the productivity of their own staff.

So my three strand prescription to L&D everywhere:

  1. Drop one size fits all. Personalise wherever feasible and harness learning technologies, used appropriately, to help employees design their own learning and access the performance support they need.
  2. Set challenging standards. We think everyone knows what good looks like, but often an understanding of what could and should be done is absent from our L&D interventions.  By defining mastery, rather than ‘good enough’ or minimum standards, we enable people to reach their potential. 
    This enables…
  3. Give people a route to innovate their way to their dream job.  If we limit people’s ambitions through the hierarchy then the hierarchy is a hindrance to good management not an aid to it. We need to free people to do the jobs which need doing, in the most efficient way possible and to be rewarded appropriately for their contribution. The teacher who gets the best results, gets paid more than the school principal? Great. The best sales person gets paid more than the sales manager? Fabulous. The customer services assistant who really makes a difference is paid more than the HR bureaucrat? Sounds good to me.

Of course, not all of these – and especially the last – sit easily within the normally defined role of L&D, but if L&D teams are not challenging the whole way people are employed and managed within their organisations then we simply can’t make the difference we need to make.

Our productivity ambitions need to be based on what we could do if we fulfilled our potential – same as everyone else.

Interested in learning more about employee skills and training? Read The Apprenticeship Levy: a radical reform of the UK skills map.

Author Profile Picture
Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

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