The UK skills gap is one of the most important challenges faced by UK employers. Over the past year, The Open University (OU) has held a series of roundtables around the UK, discussing the findings of the 2022 Business Barometer report within the context of local skills and local business challenges and opportunities. In partnership with local Chambers of Commerce, events have been held in Cardiff, Dundee and Belfast, plus two in England - one in Milton Keynes and the other in Leeds.
A variety of local business leaders and representatives from educational institutions have taken part in the different events, talking about their skills landscape and how market forces and a shortage of skills and talent are affecting them. They were very interesting and informative discussions, with the insights and experiences shared feeding into the new, 2023 report and survey.
Some key themes emerged strongly across the five events, the most obvious one being skills. Every region and nation in the UK is suffering an acute and ongoing skills crisis, particularly in business-critical areas such as digital and data skills. This tallies with the findings of the Business Barometer report – 68% of organisations in England reported problems with skills shortages in the 2022 report, rising to 70% in Scotland.
There was a general consensus among the participants that there needs to be a deep and concerted effort to tackle the skills crisis, with organisations across the spectrum collaborating, pooling resources and sharing best practices. Business, government, training providers and educational institutions need to work together to address shortages and ensure that the existing workforce and those entering the workplace for the first time have the skills needed today and tomorrow. Upskilling and reskilling were mentioned constantly, as were apprenticeships and Local Skills Improvement Plans.
Organisations everywhere are struggling to recruit the talent they need. They are also struggling to retain talent, particularly in more remote areas, a situation that has been exacerbated by the rise in hybrid working - people now have more choice about where and when they work and they are exercising that choice. Participants in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland were especially concerned about a ‘brain drain’ and the impact on local businesses and local economies.
As a result, employers are increasingly recognising that investing in talent pays off – when employees know that their employer will invest in training and skills development, it becomes an important recruitment and retention tool. But, investing in workforce training has a positive impact more broadly as well, leading to a stronger, more skilled talent pipeline in the local area, which feeds back into a creating a healthier, more vibrant and attractive local economy.
Another theme that cropped up several times was the mismatch between employer needs and the expectations of those entering the workplace. Employers repeatedly talked about young people not being work-ready, but also showing a strong preference for employers who will invest in their future.
The message from these roundtables is that employers are operating in a very challenging environment – economic headwinds, changing skills needs, a shortage of talent, a shortage of business-critical skills and a younger workforce that isn’t prepared for the demands of the workplace. But, the good news is that the roundtables showed that employers are willing to invest in skills. They realise the vitally important role they play in boosting local skills and investing in talent and want to work with training providers to tackle skills gaps.