TACKLING THE WORK-SKILLS GAP
Jane Scott Paul, Association of Accounting Technicians
New research from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) has revealed that nearly one in five unfilled vacancies in the UK are due to a skills shortage, as employers are struggling to find people with the rights skills for the role. Further research has shown that the number one reason why employers turn away young applicants is due to their lack of experience, highlighting a worrying work-skills mismatch.
As I approach retirement after 27 years at AAT focusing on the education and training needs of the sector, my view is that an education overhaul is required to address this worrying skills shortage. The education system and employers need to be working more closely together to ensure the training and qualifications currently on offer to students are equipping them with the necessary skills needed to prepare them for the world of work.
In today’s fast-paced competitive global market, the figures from the UKCES are alarming and raise a whole host of concerns for the UK economy. If the education system is not producing candidates fit for the workplace, this will hamper business growth, at a time when the economy has just started to get back on track. There needs to be a correlation between the needs of employers, training providers and the education sector, so that they work together, not against one another, which can currently seem to be the case.
Both employers and the education system have vital roles to play if this transformation is to take place. Firstly, employers need to be patient with those new to the workplace, and be prepared to spend time investing in both nurturing and building on new employees’ talents and skills. Businesses must recognise the valuable skills that young people can bring to the table, such as social media and technological understanding, which older employers may well be lacking. Younger workers often bring a fresh perspective to issues and approach life from a different background, and are likely to be less ingrained in workplace culture.
Employers must also be more open-minded when recruiting for a new role, so a young person who comes from a challenging background shouldn’t be overlooked as an unemployable young candidate in the early stages of their career. One of the things I’ve enjoyed most while leading AAT has been working with such a diverse mix of people – from all ages and backgrounds. I believe this has contributed significantly to making AAT the stimulating place it is to work, so have seen first-hand the true value that bringing such a unique collection of individuals together can create.
While employers clearly have a significant role to play in shaping our young people so they can thrive in a workplace environment, the vital role of the education system must not go unnoticed. For far too long there has been a strong emphasis on pushing people through the higher education system, specifically university, and this blinkered view now needs to change. We should be adapting like our neighbouring countries (such as Austria, Germany and Switzerland) and offering a system in which both vocational education and university are seen as equal pathways into a wide range of jobs and rewarding careers. It should be recognised that high quality apprenticeships and vocational learning produce employees with specific skills needed by employers and are a valuable complement to the traditional higher education pathway. Young people and those who influence them need to see apprenticeships as genuine high-value alternative routes to high-status careers. Research shows that higher apprenticeships can result in increased earnings estimated at £150,000 over a lifetime – comparable to the graduate premium but without the burden of tuition fees.
At the same time businesses should not write off those without a university degree. We need to open up the whole recruitment process, with independent careers advice starting at a much younger age and employers looking objectively at the types of skills and people they need then trying to find them rather than plumping for the graduate with the best academic qualifications.
The performance of schools is still measured on the levels of academic achievement by pupils and the numbers going to university, leaving little to incentivise schools to explore alternatives. We therefore need to improve the image of vocational options like apprenticeships to educators, young people and businesses as high-value alternative routes to rewarding careers.
The UKCES figures have highlighted a growing problem area, and in my view, they should act as a driver for all parties involved to address the problem head on to bring about change and ensure the UK has a workforce that is fit for purpose, which is something I’ve been campaigning for throughout my career. Steps have already been taken; for example, the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) is currently working with the Government to help address the gap in employability skills which exists among many young people leaving education, and set out ways to transform the system. However, much more still needs to be done if the UK economy is to be successful and continue to grow, it must become more diverse and inclusive and open to the need for improved skills development to capitalise on the long-awaited economic upturn. Failure to do so could have negative consequences for the UK economy and for our young people.
Jane Scott Paul OBE is retiring as CEO of AAT next month after 17 years in the role.
As a professional body setting standards in our industry and an awarding body delivering regulated qualifications, AAT works on both sides of the education/employer divide. By working with employers, AAT offers bespoke packages of qualifications and skills-based learning to suit specific business needs. Approximately 40,000 employers train staff with AAT.