Gareth Walters, Director at IMC (UK) Learning, looks at why the skills gap is widening, who, or what is to blame and what the solutions are.
My day to day business activities puts me in touch with a wide variety of people in learning and development, from seasoned professionals to entry level personnel. So, looking at the results from research my organisation recently conducted to establish HR professionals’ views with regard to the perceived skills gap between what school-leavers and graduates offer and what UK business needs, I was not surprised. What it found – that over half of respondents agree the standard of education in the UK has deteriorated in the last five to ten years – makes for a worrying read for both graduates and HR leaders alike.
So where does the blame lie, if indeed there is blame to be allocated? Does it lie with the government for creating an education system that steers exams towards the achievement of arbitrary targets that satisfy a particular political agenda, with students for taking the path of least resistance or with parents for not setting sufficiently exacting standards of their own in the home? And how much of the slack should be taken up by UK business to get the most out of a new generation of under-developed entrants to the jobs market?
I think that parents, schools and the Government (in that order) should all shoulder the responsibility for reducing an ever-widening skills gap. The problem has less to do with inherent academic potential than with the proactive fostering of the right attitude during the development of work related skills at home and in school. In short; attitude gets results. HR professionals are increasingly frustrated by school leavers and graduates who believe they are owed a good job, high salary and instant rewards. Hard work and dedication seem to have become lost somewhere between infancy and adulthood. This is why focusing on attitude at a young age is paramount. Parents and carers have the power and influence to encourage positive values and attitudes into children at a young age, which they will thereafter carry with them and apply to their education and their career.
Educators also play a large role in shaping attitudes. Too often, teachers and trainers (guided from above) in my view take a misguided approach to ensure students do not feel like failures. Rather than pushing students to their limits, they avoid constructive criticism and engage in the soft nurturing of students, sometimes to the detriment of their intellectual and attitudinal advancement. This lack of honesty prevents a realistic self evaluation of aptitude, a dangerous by-product of which is a lack of focus in personal skills development and a lack of willingness to question the standards set by those in charge, be it parents, educators or employers.
In my own youth this did not seem to be the case. I distinctly remember my French teacher commenting on my report card that I was the “single most inept student of languages it has ever been my misfortune to encounter in my career as a teacher”. It certainly hurt my pride, but it was a true reflection of my abilities at the time. Despite this, at the age of 30, I was determined to learn a language and I was not going to be defeated by someone else’s opinion. I moved to Germany and, after some hard work became fluent in German, a skill which has since become central to both my private and business life.
So what is an employer to do? An employer can only start with what is available from the system and whilst it is easy to identify a skills gap and to set a learning path to reducing it, it is harder to develop attitude. Maybe there is a need for employers to engage more with the teaching profession itself. One way this could happen is through a comprehensive work experience programme in the UK’s manufacturing and services industries for teachers, supported by the Government, so they better understand what they are preparing pupils for and why the right attitude to personal and skills development will bring rewards.
HR leaders must not however fall into the trap that some educators do – shy away from criticism and sugar-coat the truth. Without the truth, no-one can develop the requisite “I’ll show you!” attitude. Employers should be inspirational by being honest. Employees who fail to show the correct attitude at work cannot simply be ignored. This is not constructive for them, their colleagues or the company as a whole. By instilling a positive attitude and work ethic now, hopefully it will trickle down to the next generation also.