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Understanding the skills gap

Encouraging potential apprentices early on in their education plants seeds in fertile minds, both preparing young people for the real world of work and showing them the possibilities open to them.

As the pandemic surged unemployment rates for young people by 13%, it required students to seek work experience or internships as opposed to full-time entry level roles. During the last few years, nearly half of students have expressed feeling unprepared for employment due to the lack of work experience available to them. There are more young people than ever searching for work, but as they need to take the time to understand their skill set, employers are feeling the domino effect. It is directly affecting their pipeline of future talent – noticeably within the burgeoning tech sector.

The effects of COVID-19 have reversed previous years’ downward higher education trends, with reports of a surge in university applications this year. But this leaves us questioning whether this reversal is positive for employers? Does it signal a pragmatic shift in young people’s thoughts on higher education, or simply illustrate a lack of confidence and stability in other routes? While the desire to attend university is increasing, the pandemic has substantially impacted apprenticeship starts, causing them to decline by almost half. Although these are beginning to revert to pre-Covid levels, they are still failing to reach the figures that the government aspire to.

Getting to the Bottom of the Skills Deficit
The tech skills deficit is a perpetual issue for UK employers. Despite the boom in technology-driven organisations, companies struggle to hire young employees with the skills needed to slot into roles quickly and confidently. Universities are not equipping graduates to make the leap into work, while apprenticeships lag in popularity.

The result is that significant resources are spent by employers upskilling young professionals, who themselves have invested heavily in their education to find that it is not always fit for purpose. This is a problem that has been recognised not only in the technology sector but across industries. Despite a fall in applications to universities from British 18-year-olds in the last decade, many young people are still encouraged to focus on a university degree as the route to a successful career. Skills-based study, such as apprenticeships, continue to lag, even though they are based on work-ready training principles that are so vital for employers.

However, as Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Institute of Student Employers, recently mentioned, “we hear from many employers that apprentice training routes deliver an increasingly important source of talent.” Similarly, industry group techUK recently warned that despite more of its members now offering apprenticeships, ‘technology innovation is accelerating faster than the pipeline of people available to fill the gaps’.

The pandemic has only accelerated the need for specialised technical talent and on-the-job experience. Apprenticeships can help narrow the technical skills gap either in place of or alongside traditional paths for further education via university and college.

The role of the employer
The truth is that if employers want young people to arrive prepared and ready to go, they need to play their part in facilitating the journey – well before their new starter arrives on day one. If employers want to close the skills gap, they must take some responsibility for engaging young people well ahead of the time they make their HE decisions. There is a clear opportunity for employers to invest in a flexible learning solution that young people can embrace.

The pandemic has only amplified this need. As the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) recognises, ‘employability skills have overtaken academic achievements as the most important way to improve young people’s prospects of securing a good job. Key to acquiring those skills is practical insight into the world of work that can be accessed through work experience.’

For example, companies like IBM, A&O and HCL are offering post-A-Level students the opportunity to gain niche technical skills from an early age. IBM has announced a roadmap with more than 170 new academic and industry partnerships to make this a reality. “Talent is everywhere; training opportunities are not,” said Arvind Krishna, IBM Chairman and CEO. “This is why we must take big and bold steps to expand access to digital skills and employment opportunities so that more people – regardless of their background – can take advantage of the digital economy.” Influential firms such as IBM are leading the charge, highlighting the obvious  gap in the market for skills within the technology sector.

However, with any such initiative, employers must understand the skills they need to grow and innovate, not just focus on the skills of today but be ready for those of tomorrow. Foresight and understanding of future technologies, trends and capabilities are vital in building a solid talent pipeline. This is not an easy task and requires specialist insight that can provide a holistic view of the organisation’s needs alongside the broader trajectory of the industry and the current and future educational landscape.

Such an approach is evidence of an organisation’s true culture of learning. Not only offering continuous skills-building and development opportunities to employees but also to future talent. Understanding future skills requirements and engaging young people in developing those skills and experiences prior to employment isn’t just a ‘nice to have’. It should be considered a business imperative – a preventative strategy to ensure a lack of skills doesn’t jeopardise future growth and resilience.

Not only that, but it is the right thing to do. Evidence suggests that apprenticeships undertaken by young people are associated with significant benefits for individuals, employers and the wider economy. With the financial cost of continuing higher education, apprenticeships open the doors for an entirely new pool of candidates that may not otherwise meet qualifications for certain technical careers. You can teach skills, but you can’t replace individual experiences — and the more diverse perspectives businesses can acquire, the better.

Encouraging potential apprentices early on in their education plants seeds in fertile minds, both preparing young people for the real world of work and showing them the possibilities open to them. The UK’s tech sector relies on future talent, and if businesses want to benefit from younger talent, they must be prepared to invest in the foundations. They must no longer rely on universities and colleges to mould future talent but must assist in tending to their future employees.

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