Skills emergency could starve UKs business growth

Nearly 70 per cent of business expect their need for staff with higher level skills to grow in the years ahead, but more than half of those surveyed fear that they will not be able to access enough workers with the required skills.

Demand for highly skilled workers is particularly strong in sectors critical to the rebalancing of the economy – engineering, science and hi-tech, construction and manufacturing.

With an apprenticeship levy for larger employers set to be introduced following the Budget, the CBI is concerned that while it may fund more apprenticeships to meet the Government’s target of 3 million, it will not deliver the high-quality, business-relevant training needed, and do little to help small or medium sized businesses. Of apprenticeships starts in 2013/14, just 2 per cent were higher apprenticeships, which lead to qualifications at a level equivalent to higher education. Business is clear that the Government must accelerate reforms and ensure employers are in control when it comes to the design and delivery of apprenticeships to boost quality.

Katja Hall, CBI Deputy Director-General, said: “The Government has set out its stall to create a high-skilled economy, but firms are facing a skills emergency now, threatening to starve economic growth. Worryingly, it’s those high-growth, high-value sectors with the most potential which are the ones under most pressure. That includes construction, manufacturing, science, engineering and technology.

“The new levy announced in the budget may guarantee funding for more apprenticeships, but it’s unlikely to equate to higher quality or deliver the skills that industry needs. Levies on training already exist in the construction sector where two-thirds of employers are already reporting skills shortages.

“Employers have a critical role in upskilling the workforce, but part of the deal must be for real business control of apprenticeships to meet their needs on the ground.

“The best way to plug the skills gaps and provide quality training is to speed up existing apprenticeships reforms already underway and encourage smaller firms to get involved.”

Apprenticeship opportunities growing but reforms must now accelerate:

Speaking about the survey Rod Bristow, President of Pearson’s UK business, said: “Better skills are not only the lifeblood of the UK economy – as fundamental to British business as improving our infrastructure, technology and transport links – they are also critical to improving young people’s life chances, of enabling them to be a success in life and work.

“The government is right to be ambitious about apprenticeships. We need more higher-level apprenticeships in high growth sectors like biotech, engineering, and technology, as well as traditional ones.

“But our further education sector, which provides the Higher National Diploma courses that deliver these technical skills, sits on the edge of a funding precipice and may suffer damage for years to come. Proper funding of further education would provide a huge boost to British businesses and productivity. Without improving the supply of skills, the UK will find it hard to remain competitive in the global economy.”

Firms report widespread difficulties in recruiting staff with the necessary science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills, with half of firms experiencing (or expecting within three years) a shortfall of experienced staff. As a result STEM study carries a real premium with 2 in 5 employers preferring graduates to have STEM skills.

The survey also highlights the desire among businesses for schools to focus on developing rounded and grounded young people from primary age with the majority of firms arguing that aptitude and attitude rank ahead of academic qualifications:

Nearly three-quarters of firms want to see primary schools focus on developing pupils’ literacy and numeracy, as well as communications skills and other skills that will unlock their learning potential

Close to half of businesses recognise foreign language skills as beneficial to them with European languages heading the list of those in demand – French, German and Spanish are the top requirements.

Three-quarters of firms are not satisfied with the current performance of careers advice in schools and colleges across all parts of the UK.

While the performance of schools has been gently improving, businesses are still worried about a long tail of under-achievement. Over a third of firms report some concerns with school leavers’ literacy/use of English, basic numeracy and nearly half on communication skills. Close to a third of firms have had to organise remedial training in core skills for some school/college leavers.

The CBI has set out a comprehensive reform programme for schools in the UK through our First Steps campaign to help focus beyond academic ability alone. When employers recruit school and college leavers, this shines through. Attitudes/character ranks well ahead of qualifications or academic results as the most important factors when recruiting. 39 per cent are currently concerned by the attitudes of school and college leavers to work, with 61 per cent not satisfied with self-management and resilience. The CBI has called for a series of reforms to our school systems, including curriculum and Ofsted reform.

Katja Hall, added: “We betray our young people if we fail to equip them with the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to progress in work and life. We must better support schools and teachers from day one to develop the confidence, resilience and creativity that will help the next generation of talent to succeed.

“Employers consider attitudes and aptitudes more important than any specific qualification or skill, other than practical literacy and numeracy. They also want to see young people gaining a greater understanding of the world outside the school gates, by inspiring pupils about career opportunities from a much earlier age and by putting work experience back on the agenda for all young people.”

On business’ role in the education system, the survey highlighted that many firms are already engaged with schools:

Rod Bristow, President of Pearson’s UK business, added: “It is overwhelmingly clear from the research that employers are looking for education, above all else, to be a better preparation for the workplace. Skills such as communication, team-working, grit and leadership must be nurtured throughout our education system in order to enable young people to enter the work place with confidence and to realise their ambitions in a modern economy.”