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Shoring up the skill shortage

Written by Josh Russell on Monday, 01 December 2014. Posted in Talent, People

If UK enterprise is to address skills shortages, it will require a broad range of solutions. We take a look at some of the key approaches

Shoring up the skill shortage

The employment market is in rude health. “Statistics continue to point to the fact that employment is on the rise,” says David Rudick, VP of international markets at Indeed.com, the job site. He points to recent findings from the Office for National Statistics that reveal unemployment from July to September was down 115,000 on the previous quarter, bringing unemployment down to 1.96 million. However, reciprocally, as vacancies have increased, the war for talent has intensified and skills shortages are an inevitable byproduct. “According to the British Chambers of Commerce, 92% of UK companies identify a skills shortage among their workforce, with skills gaps showing most prominently in the areas of leadership, planning and computer literacy,” he continues.

For this reason, skills shortages have once again come to dominate the headlines, with both the construction sector and the big data industry reporting over the last few months that they are having difficulty in filling skills gaps. But what lies behind these shortages and how can we begin to address them? 

Degree of difficulty

One challenge comes from the fact that the way we have traditionally assessed fledgling talent is no longer fit for purpose. “Historically, it was very easy to identify the employee you wanted just by the type of degree they did and the university that they went to,” says Stuart Pedley-Smith, head of learning for Kaplan Financial, the provider of financial, accountancy and business training. Rather than focusing on the precise expertise a graduate had picked up, employers could afford to make generalisations; the foreign office might be satisfied with a high-end degree in the humanities from a red brick. “Then the first two to five years of working in the company are actually the ones in which they would teach you your trade.”

But the output of the nation’s universities has changed substantially in the last two decades, with both the number of graduates and diversity of degrees obtained increasing hugely. This has forced employers to be far more selective when recruiting for roles and a degree is less of a catch-all qualification than it once was. “Given the broader catchment of people, employers can’t see so easily what they saw before,” Pedley-Smith says. “The ability then to actually judge the quality of the candidate through the degree they’ve done is actually very difficult because there’s very little standardisation.”

One potential solution to this is to encourage more companies to have more direct oversight of degree content. “We should move more towards work-based, company-financed degrees,” Pedley-Smith says. He highlights the example set by Tesco and Loughborough University as being the ideal; Loughborough provides the academic content whilst Tesco covers all of the practical and up-to-date employment advice. “That’s a really good solution,” he continues. “If you’ve had somebody working with you for three years whilst working towards an academic qualification, you are observing them from many angles.”

A world of difference

One of the ironies of the current skills shortage is that there is a wealth of high-skilled talent from outside of Britain that is eager to find work within our borders. Rudick reveals that a recent study Indeed.com conducted found that there is a huge demand from external talent for positions within Britain. “The UK is the third most desirable labour market in the world, with one in ten job searches in the UK coming from international sources,” he says. “Yet this contrasts with the reality, which shows that cross-border movement from skilled workers is low.”

Whilst immigration is something of a controversial subject, limitations placed on free movement evidently place additional pressure on industries trying to recruit the skills they require. “Job seekers are meeting barriers when trying to put their desire to seek an international job into practice,” says Rudick. If we are to plug the skills gap, he recommends that the government reassesses its visa and migration policies for skilled talent to allow better international workforce mobility. “There is global war for the best talent,” he says. “The government needs to look at how the UK competes globally in attracting the right talent at the right time.”

Soft focus

It’s hardly surprising that in the modern climate of disruption and uncertainty that businesses are struggling to secure precisely the talent they need for certain roles. “Nowadays, with the world and technology changing so fast and the huge global competitiveness for jobs, the marketplace is a lot tougher,” says Michael Mercieca, CEO of Young Enterprise, the enterprise education charity. “Employers are more demanding; they need really good people because they’re after growth.”

Inevitably the volatility of the market means that the kinds of skills a business will require in the long term are far harder to pin down. “This pace of change means that somebody with six months’ worth of new or niche digital experience could be seen as a leader in his or her field ahead of someone with ten years’ work experience,” says Adam Croxen, managing director of Future Platforms, the creative digital agency. In the tech space, new areas of focus such as user experience design for wearables or Apple’s new programming language Swift can quickly become essential. “This makes filling the skills gap problematic because employers are seeking talent from the same small pool of candidates,” he says.

Given that it’s harder to guarantee the skills that the talent of the future will require, it becomes more important for recruiters to focus on sourcing skills that are timeless, rather than concentrating on patching short-term technical skills gaps. “You need designers, developers, advertisers and strategists who are flexible, adaptable and willing to evolve with the industry,” says Croxen. “It becomes less about a skills gap and more about evaluating potential candidates on their behaviours, aptitude and qualities.”

Technical skills are going to be key to any business but it is true that standout candidates are almost certainly those that possess a portfolio of softer skills. “Aptitude and attitude are probably the most effective ways of picking people,” Pedley-Smith says. Whilst the current focus on increasing the priority of STEM subjects in the curriculum will certainly go some way toward addressing skills shortages, increasing young people’s adaptability, creativity and resilience will ultimately be the key to creating a more versatile workforce. “Once you have got those fundamental skills, then the technical content and the knowledge aspects are the much easier parts of the problem,” he explains.

Getting hands on

However, teaching these skills as a part of the education system is easier said than done. While technical and academic skills are fairly simple to measure in terms of academic results, knowing how one should structure education in soft skills isn’t all that straightforward. But it’s important to remember that soft skills aren’t something abstract developed in isolation; often they have plenty of influence to bear on other academic subjects. “We should be teaching them more conceptual skills like the ability to think or problem solve, embedded within the existing subjects,” comments Pedley-Smith.

There are also more hands-on ways of imparting these kinds of skills. Young Enterprise’s 5 Skills Campaign has a mission to ensure that education imparts five key skills in young people to help them in the world of work: communication, resilience, problem solving, creativity and teamwork. But Mercieca is keen to stress that this is something that can’t just be learnt from a textbook; instead it needs to be taught through practical, experiential learning.

Drawing on the organisation’s other schemes, such as Fiver – in which primary school students are pledged £5 to start their own business – he believes practical experiments and activities are the key to fostering these kinds of skills. “They are learning by doing and that means learning from their mistakes,” Mercieca says. Actual experience can help children not only learn these kinds of soft skills but also how they can be applied in practice. “When you’re waiting for a supplier to deliver your product and you realise that you can’t sell for the price that you thought, that’s how you learn these softer skills.”

But while the pressure exerted by skills shortages is certainly very real and immediate, no solution will be quick and easy. “There is a need for a long-term strategy,” says Mercieca. “We need a 20-year plan, you need cross-party and cross-parliament support – not one term.” 

About the Author

Josh Russell

Josh Russell

Our former editor, Russell was the man in charge of properly apostrophising our publication and ensuring Oxford commas are mercilessly excised. Our former digital doyen, he’s also a Photoshop pro, a dab hand with InDesign and the man to go to if you need a four-hour soliloquy about the UK's best silicon startups.

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