How can the UK overcome a national skills shortage?

UK Commission on Employment and Skills reports that the UK has a chronic shortage of skilled workers

Recent reports have suggested that the UK has a chronic skills shortage amongst its young people & the skills they do have are well below the levels of our international competitors.  With the introduction of smart machines into the workplace, even those with advanced skills may soon be made redundant.

The UK Commission on Employment and Skills report details that as well as chronic shortages of skilled workers, those with qualifications are not meeting employers’ expectations, leading to complaints that applicants from universities and colleges are not being adequately prepared.

A recent report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), found that among the 23 countries surveyed,  England’s teenagers were the most likely to have low levels of literacy and second most likely to have low numeracy. The UK is suspected to fall to 28th out of 33 OECD countries for intermediate skills by 2020.

To add insult to injury, in January the World Economic Forum predicted the demise of many previously secure careers, such as administration, accountancy and even law. A variety of roles across almost every business sector may be eliminated with the rise of intelligent machines and global disruptions.  The only defence will be to invest in the human skills that computers cannot replace, such as interpersonal networking and entrepreneurship.

In the future, we need to look at the way we define workforce skills, and reconstruct the systems through which we develop and recruit highly skilled people. That means reforming current vocational education and training systems, which are rooted in the requirements of specific occupations.

The focus needs to shift from teaching outdated functional skills to real-world learning experiences.  Sustainable careers will require flexible, transferable talents such as complex problem-solving and cross-cultural team working.

One way to proactively find a solution would be for colleges and universities together with employers and government agencies, to form regional alliances that address local skills needs.

An example of this approach in action is shown in the Birmingham Skills Engine. This is an alliance of five universities and 11 colleges, along with employers, public services and civic authorities from across the Midlands.

They have formed a collaboration to build the capabilities of the local workforce, to meet the economic and social needs identified through local development strategies. This means that these organisations share their resources and new approaches to learning; they provide personalised career support to students; they use an online skills exchange that matches talented people to local opportunities.

This concept enables universities to reconnect with their founding mission: to support the education and development of their local communities and to engage with partners in their region.

Another example is shown at the University of Northampton, which has fostered the creation of a number of social enterprise partnerships with civic and public service partners to develop local talent.

Only time will tell whether these kinds of local alliances will be enough to develop the 21st-century skills and talents the UK economy needs. But the pace of change in the global environment means we do not have long to decide whether we are prepared to make these radical changes to our skills systems.

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