Break cycle of failings to deliver skills in need

This month you’ll be hearing a lot about skills. The Government is expected to publish two white papers, one on skills and the other on the Tomlinson exam proposals for 14- to 19-year-olds. With record numbers of employers finding it difficult to recruit staff, the time for delivering the goods is long overdue.

The British Chambers of Commerce produces a quarterly economic survey which is the largest and most representative of its kind in the UK. One of the most startling figures from the survey is that over the past 10 years the number of employers who say they are finding it difficult to recruit skilled staff has more than doubled. Our latest figures show a 9% increase in the number of employers with recruitment difficulties.

The survey is backed up when international comparisons are made. The UK continues to lag behind its major global competitors in terms of equipping business with the skills they need. Our productivity rates are low, our basic skills levels are weak, our apprenticeships take-up is low and the UK ranks near the bottom of the international league table for students staying on in education.

This lack of skills has been caused by a cycle of failings within the education and skills system. The failings originate in schools with both poor career advice and a lack of emphasis on vocational learning. There is a conveyor belt mentality which sends increasing numbers of young people to university. Rising drop-out rates cost the taxpayer millions of pounds every year. The cycle of failings continues through in further education colleges which have a poor business focus and adult skills development which does not accurately reflect the needs of employers.

So what needs to happen? Most importantly, business must be centre stage in training and skills policy. Business must drive the skills agenda. We need:

– a radical reform of the careers advice service to ensure that vocational learning is at the heart of our education system

– to expand the number of apprenticeship places and improve the completion rate and the quality of the apprenticeships

– to open up adult skills funding so that all training providers can access funding to improve workforce skills

– to streamline and cut down the plethora of agencies responsible for training

– to scrap the 50% university admissions target. This target is not in the interest of the economy or the interests of young people.

I believe the forthcoming white papers are a great opportunity for the UK to achieve tremendous progress in reforming our education and training system. Our economy faces many challenges, but if British businesses are to compete successfully in the global economy we must address the problem of skills shortages now.

The British Chambers of Commerce is a network of accredited Chambers of Commerce serving businesses across the UK

By David Frost, director general, British Chambers of Commerce

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