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Robert Crosland discusses the reasons behind the UK’s widening skills gap.

I recently attended Education Investor’s conference on investing in the skills and corporate training sector, which brought together some of the brightest minds involved in developing the UK’s workforce.

Two recurrent themes stood out:

  1. Positive perceptions of the UK’s education offer (from schools to corporate training) in global markets
  2. The growing skills gap in the UK, which is costing the economy £10bn per year, and has led to 170,000 more unfilled job vacancies compared to the average for 2001-2014

These two points contradict each other. If the UK has a world leading education system, why is there a widening skills gap?

Sectors at risk

To understand this issue, we need to consider which sectors are most affected by the skills shortage. Broadly speaking, these are IT, healthcare (medical and nursing), engineering and construction.

The UK has a great selection of universities and training providers offering courses that can fill the skills gap in these sectors, but there are broader issues at stake.

  1. Lack of investment

Certain sectors, such as construction, are particularly vulnerable to economic fluctuations, which impact investment in training.

Part of the issue lies in the funding model. The Construction Industry Training Board has powers to collect annual levy payments from companies to invest in training and apprenticeships (this also applies to engineering).

In an economic downturn, when workloads and revenues are lower, the levy payments decrease, limiting investment in employee training and development.

The lack of investment in recruiting and training new employees during these years, and the exodus of experienced construction workers due to soaring redundancies, left the industry poorly equipped to complete major projects such as HS2 and Hinckley Point.

The government announced these projects before the recession, so there should have been more long-term planning to ensure that training needs would be taken care of –  for example, by re-evaluating the funding model to take account of inevitable economic fluctuations.

  1. Redundant skills

Another issue driving the skills shortage in some of these key sectors is the low shelf life of training.

This is increasingly the case in high tech industries such as software development, where knowledge of a particular programming language can quickly go out of date.

One of the conference presenters also drew attention to the worrying statistic that doctors lose 30% of basic scientific knowledge after their first year of practice!

While the UK’s degree and training courses provide a great knowledge base, there needs to be more focus from employers and training bodies on encouraging continuous professional development so that skills remain up-to-date and relevant.

  1. Image problem 

Some of these sectors suffer an image problem, which impacts the supply of new recruits.

In construction and engineering, perceptions of widespread and unchallenged sexism have made the industries unappealing to women. Young people are also being put off the construction sector by poorly-informed careers advice, as 35% of schools careers advisers believe it’s an unattractive career option.

Government meddling in some of these sectors isn’t helping. The pledge for a 7-day NHS without providing additional staff and funding makes the healthcare sector unattractive to those who require flexible working.

There’s a need for industry bodies and government to sell the benefits of these careers more effectively (and provide better support for the challenges) to improve their image particularly among prospective recruits.