The barrier that could put the brake on growth

skills gap

by James Carson

As the UK economy shows signs of recovery from the longest and deepest recession since the 1930s, more employers are starting to think once again about recruiting new staff. But many are finding it hard to fill vacancies because of a shortfall in skills.

The latest survey of employers by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) has found that nearly a quarter of UK vacancies went unfilled because of a shortage of much-needed skills.

Speaking at a Skills Summit in London this week, UKCES chief executive Michael Davis highlighted the challenges facing employers looking to recruit:

“On the one hand, the number of job vacancies are up, and in England have returned to pre-recession levels; on the other, skills-shortage vacancies are growing faster than vacancies.”

The survey of more than 90,000 employers also reports significant skills shortages in skilled trades, management, professional roles, caring, leisure and machine operating, and the problem is most acute in Scotland, where 25 per cent of vacancies are the result of skills shortages.

What might this mean for the wider economy? One of the delegates at the Skills Summit, Douglas McCormick, a UKCES Commissioner, and managing director of the UK rail business Atkins, suggested that although the rise in the number of vacancies was a welcome sign of economic revival, the skill shortages might put a brake on the recovery:

“There’s a real possibility that businesses might not be able to make the most of the upturn because they don’t have the right people.”

The UKCES report also looked at the levels of training provided by employers, and found some significant changes since the previous survey in 2011: more employers are providing off-the-job training, and less training is being provided on an individual basis. There are also signs that some employers are recruiting highly skilled individuals to do very basic jobs. Douglas McCormick warned that under-using people’s skills risks a bored and demotivated workforce.

“By providing high-quality and job-specific training, businesses can make sure they have the skilled workforce they need, as well as inspiring loyalty and keeping their staff motivated.”

Looking to the longer term, Neil Carberry, the CBI’s director for employment and skills, said the survey highlighted the need to equip young people with the knowledge they need:

“There must also be a sea-change in the quality of careers advice in schools, so they are more aware of the opportunities and rewards of working in key sectors which face skills shortages.”

So, although the UKCES results indicate some hopeful signs, a shortage of skilled workers could prove to be a stumbling block to some employers reaching their full potential.

The UK Commission’s Employer Skills Survey is available to download here

Articles referred to in this blog  (please note  you must be a member to view them):

  • Why are literacy and numeracy skills in England so unequal? Evidence from the OECD’s survey of adult skills and other international surveys (LLAKES research paper 47)
  • Skilled up (oil and gas industry skill shortages), in Holyrood, No 310 20 Jan 2014
  • Underemployment: a skills utilisation perspective, in Fraser of Allander Institute Economic Commentary, Vol 37 No 2 Oct 2013
  • Education to employment: getting Europe’s youth into work

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