The race for world-class skills requires a more aspirational game plan

The world’s workplaces are filling with a healthy stream of graduates. India and China between them produce five million every year for example. By comparison, in terms of the proportion of the population with ‘higher skills’, qualifications at degree level and above, the UK is currently placed 11th in the world, and is expected to slip to 13th in the next 10 years – at a time when employers are expected to need even more graduates (Leitch Review). All predictions point to basic structural changes in demand towards graduate-level recruits, and a steep decline in roles for unskilled staff.

This is the year when the higher skills issue will become unavoidable for many employers, with this month’s announcement of the government’s strategy on higher skills to be followed on 1 April by the creation of the Commission for Employment and Skills, as recommended by the Leitch Review.

If the UK is to avoid becoming a second-division economy, the Leitch Review estimates another 4.5 million graduates will be needed by 2020. Otherwise, the UK will see a loss of inward investment and the jobs that depend on it, the migration of capital as organisations choose to base themselves in countries with stronger supplies of higher skills, more recruitment of skills from overseas, and a low-value business environment.

But where are all these high-skilled graduates going to come from when there are not enough young candidates coming through? All eyes are falling on existing employees and the millions with potential for training and re-training to higher levels. There is simply no choice, as the Leitch Review states 70% of the workforce in 2020 will be made up of people already in work today. In a fast-changing world, a high-wage economy like the UK’s can only prosper if it moves up the value chain, producing more high-value-added goods and services. This requires skilled, adaptable, productive and committed employees. Achieving this will require more than government investment alone: it needs a shared sense of purpose.

Yet perhaps the least developed part of the skills supply chain of the UK, is that which supports upskilling of the existing workforce to higher levels. More employers and their HR teams need to be ready to work with universities and the UK’s Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) to provide routes to higher-level development that go much further than the standard package of training opportunities. HR departments need to think bigger than training, to a more aspirational pathway of skills for staff if we’re to compete with the rest of the world.

There are already examples of how employers are changing the way they work to meet the challenge, partnering with SSCs and universities to address particular skills issues, and these need to become the norm. These include: the Bank of New York’s involvement with the development of Manchester Metropolitan University Business School’s part-time financial services degree, with some modules delivered directly at the bank Lancaster University Management School’s offer of an Ernst & Young sandwich degree the University of Portsmouth and the University of Central Lancashire’s development of specific foundation degrees with employers in the nuclear industry and e-skills UK (the SSC for the IT and telecoms industries) working in collaboration with universities and employers such as BT, Deloitte, IBM, Royal Bank of Scotland and Unilever, to develop the Information Technology Management for Business degree.

Higher standards of living require higher standards of learning. Employees in rapidly developing countries have a very clear sense of this – they prize any kind of development at any stage in their careers and have no problem with the idea of gaining new skills.

The UK must break its fixed ideas about learning, where degrees and vocational training are just for the young, and employers will need to be a major part of the change.

Brandon Ashworth is head of vocational education and training development and reform at the SSDA

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