The Great British Skills Gap

Mind the Gap-01Guest Author: James McCaffrey

With so many debates focusing on education and employment, the last thing you would expect to hear a piece of research affirming is the idea of there being too many jobs and not enough vacancies. But this is precisely what the Mind The Gap research from Total Jobs has found. The research suggests that by the year 2017, the number of jobs in the UK will have increased by 22%: but employers fear that they will not be able to fill vacancies then, when over 60% of employers are struggling to fill vacancies at present.

What’s the problem? 

In the nineties and early noughties there was a university boom: more people than ever before were studying in higher education, which theoretically should have meant an increase in the number of skilled graduates and future employees. The jobs market itself has certainly changed in the past two decades, with more jobs than ever before now requiring a degree as a prerequisite qualification: but in spite of these factors, employers do not believe that schools and universities are adequately preparing students for the world of work. 22% of those surveyed believed that graduates and entry level candidates didn’t have sufficient enough communication or “soft skills”, including the ability to adequately present a CV; 40% do not feel that candidates have the correct level of technical skill, whilst 20% felt that candidates lack business awareness.

A key area of concern for many employers is the lack of technically skilled candidates across the fields of IT, engineering, manufacturing, research and development.

There are few important factors at play here, first and foremost: technological advance. The speed at which this has developed in commerce, products, manufacturing, creative industries and so on has been so rapid that it has been difficult to keep pace and train new recruits in new technologies; as it stands there are more vacancies for engineers and skilled technical workers than there are skilled people to fill vacancies. The fact that fewer people are studying STEM subjects means this gap is likely to continue to grow; and we have an ageing workforce and a lack of new skilled workers to step in a fill their shoes.

Employer solutions 

Employers feel that the answer lies in changing the structure and focus of education at all levels – from schools right through to university. 27% of employers think that apprenticeships are the key to addressing the skills gap, with the research also revealing an interesting shift away from graduate recruitment towards apprenticeships with nearly half all those surveyed citing that they now favored. It’s not a case of one replacing the other, more a case of employers recognising the need to invest more in training staff. This idea also feeds into the general consensus amongst those surveyed that education should be more business focused: a quarter of employers think that there should be more business focused skills embedded within school education, whilst another 18% have called for more vocationally focused degrees.

Hmm..

These findings do raise some interesting questions about the prospects for current graduates – it seems a redundant exercise to tell them to embark on an apprenticeship at this stage in their careers; but it is clear that there is a skills gap that needs to be urgently addressed. Mike Fetters, Director of Graduate Recruitment at Total Jobs, told us that graduates or those considering studying at university shouldn’t worry about the idea of competing with those doing apprenticeships, as both forms of education bring with them their own respective benefits and opportunities. He conceded that careers advice and industry relationships with universities could be much stronger, but also emphasized that the key to making yourself as employable as possible lies in being as proactive as possible, and using every opportunity available to develop skills.

The idea of a business focused education is slightly controversial, as it moves us to ask what the point of education itself actually is, but Mike said “It’s important to study for personal growth and development, but ultimately people study to get qualifications in order to gain employment”. The key then it seems is striking a balance between the two, and remembering that your academic qualification is just one aspect of what employers will be looking for: a number of those asked also flagged a lack of work experience as a reason for them struggling to fill job vacancies.

What You Can Do

Build your IT skills

We live in a world where technology has become so integral to our work lives and day to day activities: being IT savvy only makes sense. If you are still studying, ask your library or student services about IT courses, universities and local libraries sometimes have free courses or information about places that do host course to help you build up your skills.

Work Experience: 

Think creatively about what this can entail – not everyone can afford to embark on a full time internship, which will normally only reimburse you for travel and lunch expenses – think outside the box about how to gain skills. Perhaps you could set up a blog or volunteer for a few hours a week in an area relevant to the one you wish to work in. If you are still studying, you can join a society, take on a role and use the opportunity to understand the responsibilities that it entails: it all still counts toward work experience. Work experience can come with questionable ethics, but you’ll have an invaluable opportunity to learn about work culture, communication and working as part of a team too.

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