By Jim Clarke

There’s a lot of talk about fixing the growing skills gap crisis in the UK. So where do we start?

To be honest, you could argue there are skills gaps everywhere. Education needs more teachers, businesses struggle to fill an array of vacancies from sales to IT, hospitals need more doctors and nurses; that’s before you get onto the construction and the hospitality sectors.

Also consider the pressure on the care sector; I mean we are all getting older so who is going to look after us all. The list goes on.

In a recent BBC article, the Royal Academy of Engineering forecasted 1.3m jobs will be created in engineering by 2020 - this will require 75,000 new engineers every year. The challenge is that only 22,000 are entering engineering careers at the moment.

A lot of the new generation of jobs require good educational results, with STEM subjects (science, technology, english and maths), particularly important to the engineering, science and technology industries, as well as medicine. I must admit, I have concerns about the talented young people who don’t fit this mould and we need to be very aware of the impact.

Since 2000, one of the major growth areas has been the digital industry. The first time I heard of digital was when I bought a ‘Set Top Box’ so I could watch BBC Three. Things have moved on from then, and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) has identified four major growth areas in digital - mobile, cyber, green IT and cloud computing.

You’ve also got the creative industries with media seeing big changes in how we consume information; with marketing changing beyond recognition with social media; that is even before you look at the High Street v Online. Incredibly a report by O2 found there were 745,000 skilled digital workers required by 2017.

The world is constantly changing and evolving, therefore having skills gaps is simply a by-product of this. Businesses are having to become very dynamic and skills are at the centre of this. The industries with the biggest changes are where technology plays a role.

So what is the solution? There are a number of options to contemplate…

  1. Investment in reskilling and up skilling employees is going to become increasingly important, particularly in industries where the use of technology is part of day to day life. With SME’s in fast changing sectors, employees can expect to have multiple jobs as their employers goes through transition.
  2. ‘Skill utilisation’, a growing term where employers tap into employee skills which lie dormant. Often employers tap into the current skills of an employee; however there can be real value looking back at previous roles and making use of these skills.
  3. In new sectors, there may be a need to develop skills from grass roots through apprenticeships or graduate schemes. Five years ago people associated apprenticeships to trades, now you are seeing apprenticeships in areas where there are skills gaps include technology, digital and media. Recently David Cameron announced degree apprenticeships in technology.

‘Soft skills’ is an area talked about a lot by business when recruiting young people. A recent survey of 3,000 firms found 9 out of 10 thought school leavers were not ready for employment, and more than half said it was the same with graduates.

With soft skills, I feel it’s important we don’t focus too much on this because the danger is we put employers off. It can be easy to look at life through ‘rose tinted’ spectacles, thinking we were great when we started out, and that young people today are genetically wired differently and lack get up and go. Personally I wasn’t great in my early career, however with some good mentors, the odd kick up the backside and a fair bit of self-education, I’ve managed to climb up the career ladder.

I certainly wasn’t the finished article when I left school; in fairness I'm still not. Surely the only way for young people to really develop work and life skills is by experiencing life and work and having good mentors along the way.

So is there an answer to the skills gap challenge? If I was being honest, I am not sure there is. That isn’t a negative view as there are certainly ways to improve things, with education continuing to innovate and businesses becoming more responsive. My point is unless someone stops the world evolving, skills gaps will always be there in some form.

Jim is experienced in running an organisation which supports employers to develop future talent, a top priority for any organisation looking to grow and develop talent from grass roots. He works with organisations such as Astra Zeneca and Network Rail, through to fast growing start-ups. Jim is passionate about young people’s potential. In his words, ‘I don’t see life through rose tinted spectacles – often people forget they started out with no experience’.