Automation, Brexit and COVID-19 fail to encourage UK workers to upskill

Small and medium businesses face critical skills gaps that could hamper their competitiveness and future growth.


Small and medium businesses face critical skills gaps that could hamper their competitiveness and future growth. 

To be competitive and maximise organisational potential, having talent with the right skills and competencies is essential for small and medium businesses (SMEs) in the UK. This may be strikingly obvious but, according to our annual Mind the Skills Gap research, SMEs are facing growing problems as the gap between employer needs and employee attitudes to training continues to widen despite the threat posed to jobs by the new ABC ‘ automation, Brexit and COVID-19.

One of these issues alone would be a major challenge for business leaders, but three of them demand even more visionary thinking to overcome. There have been signs that SMEs have taken on the challenges of 2020 and emerged stronger, using the situation to make changes to their businesses which should ensure their near to mid-term viability. However, that future will also rest on how willing or able employees are to ensure their skills keep pace with change. 

Skills mismatch 

Once again, our research has found a mismatch between the skills employers say they need, and the amount of skills training employees say they have had. This time however, under the current economic circumstances, the stakes are higher for business.

Two thirds of (65%) of UK SMEs said that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted skills gaps within their organisation. Among this group, nearly 95% believe that these skills gaps are significant enough to hamper their organisation’s future growth and success. 

Yet over two thirds (66%) of UK employees say they have had no training or professional development since January 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic forcing many companies to change how they do business.  

Digital skills gap 

Despite the relatively low number of UK employees undertaking training in 2020, 75% of employees believe that they have the appropriate skills they need to perform their job. In line with this, 75% of employees also believe that they have enough transferable skills to move industries, sectors or jobs if they wanted to. 

From the employers’ perspective however, the story is a little different as many continue to experience widening skills gaps. The most common gaps relate to digital skills (42%) such as e-commerce, coding, data analytics, cybersecurity, and cloud computing, health and safety (37%), and people management and leadership skills (33%).  

Albeit the rapidly changing nature of business and ways of working, UK SME employees are not adapting their skillsets fast enough. Less than a fifth (16%) of SME employees are currently undertaking skills training or professional development, and only 18% expect to undertake training in the next 12 months. 

Amongst those SME employees currently undertaking skills training, or planning to in the next 12 months, technical skills specific to their job, (46%), people management and leadership skills (34%), and health and safety (33%) are being prioritised. Digital skills, currently the most common skills gap for employers, are seen as vital by only 25% of SME employees. 

Pace of digital transformation accelerates 

Interestingly, 67% of UK SMEs said they have accelerated their organisation’s digital transformation as a direct result of COVID-19. Within this group, nearly 8 in 10 (78%) believe that their current workforce has the right skills to support their organisation’s digital transformation journey. Yet, 78% of these same SMEs also identified significant skills gap in their organisation due to COVID-19, which could impact their ability to sustain organisational success and long-term growth. 

7 in 10 (70%) SME employees said that they feel prepared to work in a digital workplace, with 21% saying they ‘very prepared’ and 49% stating that they feel ‘somewhat prepared’. In contrast, 10% stated that they do not feel prepared to operate in a digital workplace.

Among SMEs who do not think that their workforce currently has the right skills for the digital workplace, 44% of SME business leaders are setting up development programmes for current employees so they can take up new responsibilities or roles within the organisation. 43% said they are hiring new employees with the right skills and 33% are looking at using external providers to deliver new services. 

Looking to the future 

To be successful in both the post-Brexit and COVID-19 world, the UK must change its attitudes to workplace learning or risk being left behind. We need to better support all workers to reskill and help them and businesses adapt to be being both resilient and competitive in an automated world. Business leaders, employees and the government must work together to plug critical skills gaps and create the highly skilled, tech-savvy and agile workforce UK businesses desperately need. Let’s hope we can get everyone on board and ready for the new ABC.

Andrew Harding
Andrew Harding

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