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Stepping up to win the skills race

The General Election is just months away, and every organisation or policy group out there is putting pen to paper and making recommendations for the next Government. Article By Chris Jones, Chief Executive of the City & Guilds Group.

Undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges we face is winning the global skills race. So it’s not a surprise to see the flurry of ideas and calls to all the political parties around this policy area. To contribute to the debate, the City & Guilds Group conducted a review into policymaking in this area: ‘Sense and Instability: three decades of skills employment policy’. Recently the UK Commission for Employment and Skills followed suit, with its ‘Growth Through People’ paper which reflects extensive research and consultation with employers and educators.

Both reports clearly highlight the critical role of employers in education, and how important it is that their voices are heard. UKCES believes that employers, with the right Government support, are responsible for raising the standards of skills. In fact, I can’t think of a single manifesto or report that doesn’t say something similar. So what does all this mean for employers? Your time is now. If you want to ensure your organisation has the skills it needs to flourish, this is the time to do it.

A key issue employers can play a role in resolving is the breakdown in careers advice. Young people aren’t being told where the jobs are. A Construction Industry Training Board report found that there are more than 180,000 construction jobs that need to be filled within the next four years. You’d think young people would be jumping to work in a sector with so much opportunity, yet only around 7,000 people completed a construction apprenticeship last year. The message is clearly not getting through.

I think we’re missing a trick. We have industrial strategies that clearly lay out the UK’s priorities for future growth. We have labour market information that shows where the skills gaps will be. Why aren’t we using this insight to shape careers advice and the curriculum? This would guarantee that what’s being taught in the classroom is actually equipping school-leavers with the skills they need for their future jobs. Employers, educators and the Government need to work together to make this happen.

However it’s not just a lack of meaningful data that’s the issue; there’s also very little understanding of what jobs in certain industries actually look like. The retail industry is a classic example – it employs a staggering 16 percent of our workforce, and includes some of the biggest brands in the country. Sadly, people often associate a job in retail with ‘shelf-stacking’. This narrow-minded attitude doesn’t do us any favours. The retail industry is full of opportunity. It helps people develop a range of skills– from customer service, to business management to bakery. The same could be said about many other industries – such as hospitality and catering, and construction. Outdated stereotypes close doors.

So how do we fill this information gap between schools and businesses? Employers need to be more visible and active in explaining what their industry is all about. City & Guilds’ research shows that 42 percent of businesses don’t even work with schools and colleges to attract young talent. One way to be more visible is to create closer links between Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and careers advice services in schools. LEPs will be able to give an accurate presentation of the local labour market, informed by local employers. This means young people are not only advised on which careers might suit them, but also the industries and job roles that are in demand.

The UKCES report said that “success should be measured by a wide set of outcomes, including jobs and progression, not just qualifications.” This is a call to the education system, which is overly governed by league-tables and university entrance rates. But it is also important for employers to break this mind-set. This is about challenging your status quo recruitment processes and looking beyond degrees. It’s also about offering high-quality work experience placements that help you build a pipeline of future employees. 

The UKCES recommends that improving workplace productivity should be recognised as the key to increasing pay and prosperity. Improving productivity and improving the skills of your employees go hand and hand. Investing in your people’s skills – and giving them the chance to put these skills to good use – will lead to a more productive workforce, a more competitive business and a prosperous economy.

The challenge of course is time and money. But the good news is that innovation is increasing the efficiency and cost of training. E-learning, blended learning and social learning are making it easier for individuals to develop their skills in the workplace.As the UKCES report makes clear, employers have a huge role to play in skills development. We know enthusiasm and commitment from businesses and organisations is there. Now is the time for more businesses to get involved and take action. 

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