Failing education system forces UK firms to look abroad for staff

UK employers are being forced to hire workers from across the European Union because the education system is not producing school leavers with basic levels of numeracy, literacy and communication skills, one business body has claimed.

The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) warned that employers were becoming more inclined to recruit from the EU talent pool because of a failing UK education system.

The warning follows criticisms from Tesco chief Terry Leahy that employers were left to “pick up the pieces” when school leavers entered jobs with a “woefully low” level of education. His comments were backed up by leaders at Asda, BT and GlaxoSmithKline, who called for an overhaul of the education and exam system.

John Lucas, policy adviser at the BCC, said: “In the past 10 years, UK companies have preferred to take on workers from within the EU to make up for shortfalls in the British education system. I’m not saying that is ideal; the ideal would be an education system in Britain that produces suitably skilled people.”

According to CBI research published in August, more than half of employers are unhappy with school leavers’ basic ability to read, write and do simple maths, and two-fifths are concerned about basic literacy and numeracy skills among their workforce.

One leading HR chief acknowledged the problem and admitted that cost savings on training could be made if schools were able to give teenagers the right set of skills when they leave the education system and start work.

Dean Shoesmith, head of HR for the London boroughs of Sutton and Merton, said: “We have people coming straight from school into the workplace that struggle with basic numeracy, literacy, people and IT skills.

“If you have an employee that comes into the workplace with a degree of skill and knowledge to start with, it is less costly because you don’t have to close that skills gap.”

Responding to the claims, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKES), tasked with boosting skill levels across UK workplaces, said that stronger relationships between schools and employers would better prepare pupils for employment.

Moira McKerracher, assistant director for strategy and performance at the UKES, said: “The education system needs to have better links with employers. It must expose people to the world of work, and while there is a lot of good practice at the moment on this, it is not mainstream across the whole system.”

Last week, the government moved to forge stronger links between business and schools by launching the Education and Employers Taskforce. It aims to boost the number of education-employer partnerships in a bid to equip young people with the skills and experience needed for future employment.

The government is pumping £1.5m into the initiative over the next three years and will focus on building effective links between every primary school, secondary school and college with a local business. Two online guides – one for employers and another for teachers – have been launched to explain how to build partnerships with one another.

A group of trustees – including NHS workforce director Clare Chapman – will oversee the taskforce and act as ambassadors for its work.

Schools secretary Ed Balls said: “These partnerships make a real difference to young people. Employers also have a lot to gain; they will be helping to build a skilled future workforce that is interested and trained in their industries.”

Sainsbury’s backs numeracy campaign

Sainsbury’s has backed a Learning & Skills Council (LSC) campaign to encourage adults to address their numeracy and literacy shortcomings.

The campaign, dubbed Get On, was showcased earlier this month in nine Sainsbury’s stores across the country. Shoppers were given information on local courses and told that if they improved their arithmetic they stand more chance of spotting a bargain.

A campaign spokeswoman told Personnel Today that all major retail chains were invited to take part in Get On but that Sainsbury’s, which has run skills training for its own staff, was the first to come forward and was the most enthusiastic.

Chief executive Justin King said the firm was delighted to partner with Get On. “As a major retailer, we realise how important good numeracy is, not only in the workplace but also at home.

“To help our colleagues brush up on their maths skills, we launched our Skills for Life programme. It’s tailored to the individual and is all online so colleagues can complete the courses at their own pace,” he said.

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