One in three employers has to send staff for remedial training to teach them basic English and maths skills they did not learn at school, according to new research from the CBI.
The figures are contained in a report commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills as part of its drive to raise basic skills levels.
One of the key solutions mooted in last year’s 14-19 Education and Skills White Paper was the introduction of new functional skills modules for GCSEs in English, maths and ICT.
The report shows that employers are particularly keen to see this scheme implemented.
Businesses reported that the abilities recruits need to urgently improve include simple mental arithmetic without a calculator, the ability to interpret data, competence in percentages, and calculating proportions.
Written communication including legible handwriting, communicating information orally, understanding written instructions, and correct grammar and spelling are the areas of literacy most in need of improvement, employers said.
Companies said that the delivery of these skills is not happening under the current GCSE curriculum.
Last year just over half of GCSE students achieved a grade C or above in maths (54%) and just six in 10 (60%) in English. Only 45% achieved both.
Employers say this could severely impact the UK’s ability to perform in the global economy in the future. The opportunities for unskilled workers will shrivel from 3.4 million today to 600,000 by 2020, according to Lord Leitch’s interim report on skills released last December.
CBI director-general Richard Lambert said the report was a sad indictment of how the education system has let young people down.
“We must raise our game on basic skills in this country – the UK simply can’t match the low labour costs of China and India,” he said. “We have to compete on the basis of quality, and that means improving our skills base, starting with the very basics.
“Commissioning this report is a first step, but the government must show a far greater sense of urgency and purpose if it is to deliver on its promise to sort this out,” he said.
Employers in the manufacturing and construction sector reported greater problems with innumeracy than in service industries. Both sectors reported a similar spread of literacy problems.
One catering company manager said there is a “total lack of knowledge of times tables among staff, which means many are unable to carry out basic calculations such as adding VAT or adjusting sale prices”.
At a car company, a training manager said: “Some people with GCSEs in maths and English can’t get through our basic skills tests, which is worrying… people who fail have difficulties with basic reading and writing, fractions, multiplication and division.”
A construction firm’s personnel manager told the CBI: “The standard of literacy shown by people filling in the double-sided application form for a trainee position is often very poor. Many applicants can’t construct a sentence and their grammar, handwriting and spelling are awful.
“It’s a delight when an application form is good,” he added.