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Tackling skills shortages, re-skilling and up-skilling

I’m sure we’ve all felt the shockwave of the Tata Steel sale/potential closures from a human perspective. Proud people of all ages and genders having their livelihood potentially pulled and the only consolation being some form of reskilling or redeployment if there’s no buyer and the steel mills close.

Reskilling. In this case, not some handy little pivot from waterfall to agile. Someone whose entire life has been working in heavy industry and being skilled at it, to goodness knows what.  It seems like scant consolation to be offered reskilling and understandably people are not impressed with this “option”.

Upskilling. You’re destined for something different, at a higher level of cognition so let’s upskill you so you can be more useful to us.

Skills shortages. Not enough <insert vocation here> so we have to import; train people and build a pipeline of talent; or address something systemic in a broken education / work proposition.

Easy enough words to say but really, we’re talking about people, their choices, preferences, lives, commitments and natural abilities here.

So what are UK PLCs skills shortages? Why are there such barren lands of vocational, professional or emerging skills and what is the world of work doing to bring about abundance from such a void?

The UKCES has a lot to say about skills shortages – and I’ll go on record as being a big admirer of their work. They’ve talked extensively about the need for UK PLC to take more seriously workplace learning; programmes of opportunity for people to discover what they could be brilliant at and urging workplaces, confederations, institutes and more to join in with academia and solve the conundrum of not enough skill to fill skilled roles.

The skills survey can be found here

What it tells us is that one in four jobs go unfilled because there simply aren’t enough people to fill them due to their lack of skills in that area. The areas most barren are electricity, gas and water suppliers; transport and manufacturing are not far behind. Even in the finance sector – touted by successive Governments as the lifeblood of the economy and making the UK a financial centre – has been hit by skills shortages.

It’s not just technical and vocational skills lacking  – it’s the so-called soft skills that are also lacking according to the survey. Impairing productivity, customer service / satisfaction and loss of contracts. As many as 51% of construction firms have reported they lost work/contracts because they had skills gaps.

It reads like a sorry report card and brings into question what academia and the working world are doing to address this issue.

Apprenticeships, internships and other schemes have risen partly to help address this – taking unskilled or lower skilled people and bringing them on through on-the-job learning or sponsored upskilling programmes. These are all laudable efforts but take time to mature whilst the gap grows ever bigger, wider or more negatively impactful. Costing UK PLC in lost opportunity costs and productivity drains. The more vacancies companies are carrying due to not filling them with skillful people, the more pressure is put on those in the roles who have to do 1.5 or 2 people’s work. They become tired, less effective and perhaps even sickness absenteeism as a result of overwork and exhaustion.

It’s like the critical issue no-one seems to want to talk about or lay down markers about.

Do I have answers? Well yes and no.

I see the need to bring academia and companies together to work in a more harmonious fashion to close those gaps and enhance education to include more of the skills we need. We seem to have a lot of lawyers and marketers coming off the university “lines”. The continued focus on STEM and computer engineering appears to be moving the dial to coders, designers and scientific skills areas. All key things as we move into a more scientific and technologically driven world.

I see busy businesses and overwhelmed HR and L&D functions trying to keep their heads above water in the day-to-day survival of their enterprises when in reality, they need a longer term building programme to put right years of the wrong sort of investment or cul-de-sacs of (or even over engineered) programmes for roles that simply aren’t needed in abundance.

So I think we need some upskilling and reskilling on how to address skills shortages.  We need more people to pay attention to initiatives and research the CIPD, OECD, UKCES and others put out. The signs are there but we’re still not quite grasping the nettle (as they say).

And we’re probably still not working towards some of the “new” crop of skills which the World Economic Forum called out here as 16 key skills including ICT literacy; cultural and civic literacy; critical thinking & problem solving; persistence/grit; and adaptability.

The changing nature of work, the rise of a digitally driven workplace and a flexible and agile workforce gives us an even more complex and demanding environment to get the best from people and for people.

Now, perhaps more than ever, we need a sharper focus on lifelong learning; continuing professional development and scenario-based workforce planning.

It really is time for the rise of the learning economy before we don’t suffer any further shortage of the skills we need, and we become stone cold devoid of them.

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