UK skill shortages: chicken or the egg?

UK skill shortages: chicken or the egg?

There's one problem that has existed for decades, hasn’t been solved, and most definitely won’t go away – skills shortages

New Year. New thoughts? New beginnings? In fact, often the most relevant comments are related to regurgitating and reconsidering “issues” that have existed for a very long time.

Carolyn Fairbairn’s New Year message as director general of the CBI perceived the importance of picking up on a problem that has existed for decades, certainly hasn’t been solved – and most definitely won’t go away. Something that is so fundamental that it is remarkable that business hasn’t staggered to a halt.

I refer to skill shortages.

As a matter of interest I made use of Google to look at some of the “messages” the CBI has issued over last few years. The following were selected at random from “messages” that have been pretty consistent.

2008: “Too many kids don’t get up-to-date advice about what options are available and which doors are open to them”.

2013: CBI warned careers guidanceheading towards a cliff edge”.

2015:  CBI survey critical of the standards of careers advice in schools.

Whenever employers are surveyed about their skill needs, the majority claim to fear being unable to fulfil recruitment targets. Aligned to this, demand for better careers advice for young people is cited over and over again.

Very late in the day but, nevertheless, good news: from January this year, secondary schools and colleges have a statutory obligation to provide students with careers information including technical qualifications and apprenticeships.

But doesn’t this mean that schools – and all other careers advisers – must have enormously wide knowledge or access to enormously wide knowledge? Is it possible for schools – and others – to keep up with the speed at which job structures are changing?

Technology is moving so fast that it is often difficult to predict where industries will be – and what skills they will need – in just a year’s time.  Without this advance knowledge is it possible for schools, colleges and universities to structure education and training to fulfil skill shortages?

Getting down to the absolute practicalities. Schools and others – already strapped for cash – are unlikely to be able to appoint a full-time careers adviser. The job is much more likely to be handed to an unfortunate individual whose timetable can be “adapted” to provide a few hours (at most) a week.

Targets often make headline news. They look good but they are frequently unachievable in the real sense. Because “money”– “funding” – “the bottom line” – are often attached to targets, it is almost inevitable that a degree of “editing” and “manipulation” and “massage” take place. After all, in the final analysis it often boils down to survival.

If something isn’t going too well, yet another target is implemented. Do draconian targets and demands really achieve the results needed? At the same time, withdrawing targets – even regulating them – is likely to be perceived as a lowering of standards.

When targets first began to dominate they were often perceived as a determination to “get it right”. Media coverage tended to be positive and generous. Now “targets” – and how to handle them – involve quite a few full-time jobs at executive rank. After all, the ability to fulfil targets indicates success, doesn’t it? Or do the results confuse and muddy the waters? And is that by intention or default?

Returning to the subject of “skills”. As Brexit approaches, the situation is becoming even more critical. It is likely we shall lose many “imported” skills and there won’t be sufficient home-grown replacements. The vacancies are likely to cover unskilled, semi-skilled, highly skilled and multi-skilled jobs. Forced to compete to attract students in sufficient numbers to fulfil targets and thus achieve money, education providers are caught up in the maelstrom. Where is all this really going?

The problems the UK is facing in regards to skills shortages are complex. When we refer to “transformation of skills” don’t we fail to tackle a problem that is fundamental in all areas of learning and training? Far too many children are leaving primary education inadequately prepared to benefit from secondary education because their reading and math skills are inadequate.  Some – but far from all – “catch up” to a reasonable standard during secondary school but those who don’t move on to college, university (undergraduates aren’t exempt from the problem) or an apprenticeship where further efforts must be made to fill the gaps.

The phrase “chicken and egg” is very useful here!

Mark Lumsdon-Taylor is deputy group principal and deputy CEO, Hadlow College

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