How do we solve the skills gap in the UK?

skills gap graphicA recent survey revealed that Finance Directors are more worried about the skills shortage in the UK than they are about the UK remaining in Europe. In fact, it ranked second only to concerns regarding the oil price. A worrying statement!

We ourselves have written previously about the skills shortage in engineering indicating that the practical skills needed are not being taught early enough. The misheld perception that engineering jobs are ‘dirty’ and carried out in oil covered overalls or while wearing hard hats on a building site is a perception we need to change. Schools need to open the eyes of their students to the possibilities of engineering careers out there. We also need to ensure that the practical skills that come with these jobs are taught and practiced throughout any period of education. There is little point in learning the theory of how to do something for 3 or 4 years and then not being able to apply that practically when looking for employment.

It seems, that these concerns do not only relate to engineering, but to employment as a whole in the UK. A report by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants recently stated that UK school leavers are the worst in Europe for essential skills. Whether they are leaving school at 18 or graduating later, employers state that students are lacking the skills they are looking for. It seems the most basic skills such as communication and teamwork are a struggle for many and is given as a major factor when deciding whether to employ a young person.

While there is a push in government to increase the number of apprenticeships, the education system is still focussed on exam results and university attendance. It is questionable whether enough is being done to make sure young people see apprenticeships and vocational qualifications as an equal alternative to university.

So who is responsible for trying to resolve the issue of the skills gap in the UK?

It has to be a combined effort; government, education and businesses all need to step up and play their part.

The education system cannot produce young people with all the skills required to meet the specific needs of businesses. But it can and should be more effective at preparing students for life after education. Self management, communication and teamwork skills are all areas that employers say are a problem. Programmes to improve these skills combined with works experience programmes will go a long way to helping solve some of the issues. Initiatives to involve local businesses in these programmes will also help. After all, who is better placed to talk to students about what employers want than the employers themselves?

Businesses also have a role to play. Engagement with schools and colleges is essential if students are to understand what an employer wants from them. Works experience placements are important too if they are to get a grasp of the skills required when they leave school. By works experience, we mean a works experience. Taking a student for a placement and having them make coffee all day does not give them an understanding of employment and the skills required (unless you are a coffee shop of course!).

In a recent survey of 3000 firms by the British Chambers of Commerce, 9 out of 10 said that school leavers were not ready for employment. More than 50% of them said school leavers lacked the basic skills required for employment yet half of those surveyed said they did not offer works experience placements themselves. How can students learn about the realities of employment if they don’t get a chance to experience it?

When considering recruitment it’s understandable that businesses will want to go for skills and experience, after all you are running a business. But businesses can work more closely with schools, colleges and universities to ensure that the younger generation leave their education with the basic skills that employers need. Then it’s down to us employers to cover the job or industry specific things in our own internal training programmes.

A Department for Education spokesman speaking to the BBC recently said “Our plan for education is designed to give every child the knowledge and skills they need to prepare them for life in modern Britain, and getting them ready for the world of work is part of this.
“We have already updated guidance for schools to encourage closer links with employers to deliver career insight talks, mentoring and work tasters in order to open pupils’ eyes to the opportunities available to them and help them to make the right choices at the right time.

With a combined effort from government, education and business there should be a way forward to bridge those skills gaps and guarantee the future of British industry.

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