The government’s major investigation into skills levels in the UK has set out in stark terms the enormous task ahead if the economy is to compete in the global marketplace.
The results of the interim report by Lord Leitch, released to coincide with the chancellor’s pre-budget statement last week, will come as no surprise to HR departments fighting for a shrinking pool of talent.
It reveals that more than one third of adults of working age in the UK do not have a basic school-leaving qualification, and five million adults have no qualifications at all.
The report also shows that one in six adults does not have the literacy skills expected of an 11-year-old, while half do not have equivalent levels of functional numeracy. It concludes that UK skills levels will continue to compare poorly in an increasingly globalised market, and there is a risk that this will undermine the UK’s long-term prosperity.
Leitch said that even if the UK hit the demanding targets set by the government this would not be enough to supply the skills that employers, employees and the nation needs to compete.
“Despite recent improvement, there is consensus that we need to be much more ambitious and that the UK must raise its game,” he said. “This is an urgent task – the scale of the challenge is daunting.”
The report also highlighted the need to decide whether efforts should be concentrated on improving those with low, intermediate or high skills levels as each scenario would produce different benefits.
John Philpott, chief economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said the key test of the review would be the balance of responsibility between the government, employers and individuals to meet the skills challenge.
Policy change needed
“What also needs to be stressed – and here the interim report is silent – is that an increased supply of skills on its own will not be enough to improve the productivity of UK plc,” he said. “Increased investment in skills will only pay off if these are used along with a wider battery of people-management practices.”
Philpott welcomed the chancellor’s announcement that the employer training programme will be extended nationally to provide training for 300,000 employees a year in 50,000 companies.
“But the government should continue to avoid any pressure to place employers under a statutory responsibility to train employees in basic transferable skills,” Philpott added.
Government moves to attract skilled workers
The government hopes to shore up the skills deficit in the immediate future by encouraging more foreign students to study and then stay and work in the UK.
The chancellor’s pre-budget statement laid out a package of measures to ‘help the higher education sector benefit from the opportunities of globalisation’.
These included a 50% increase in government support for the marketing and promotion of UK higher education to non-EU students. All international students will be able to work in the UK for up to 12 months on completion of a post-graduate degree, or an undergraduate degree in a sector where there are skills shortages.
Under the points-based system for managed migration, the government will award bonus points in tier one (highly skilled migrants) and tier two (skilled migrants with a job offer) to people who have previously studied in the UK.