The ONS has painted a picture of strong employment growth, but behind the scenes, the nation’s increasing job creation is being met with one big hurdle: a lack of skills.
Unemployment sits at 4%, the lowest rate it’s been since 1975. But August revealed that as the UK sees a record annual drop in EU nationals, so too does its apparent skills gap increase.
Experts suggest though that Brexit’s impact on migration shouldn’t garner all the blame for the lack of skills.
Education hasn’t kept pace with the business world
The Telegraph interviewed the Learning and Work Institute’s Fiona Aldridge, who recently carried out a UK-wide report. New technologies are being introduced and migration patterns are changing, she said. The workforce needs to constantly learn new skills to remain competitive on a global scale.
However, the number of adults in training or education has fallen to a drastic low.
“Our ageing population is increasing the need for adults to reskill throughout their extended working lives,” the report read. On the other end of the scale, higher education fees and a misunderstanding of the skills required at work has led to graduates lacking business fundamentals.
Rethink Economics put this into perspective with a survey. Its respondents – all employers – cited self-awareness and problem-solving skills as essential to any job role. They found both lacking in most graduates.
The necessity for undergraduate degrees to integrate “more real-world problems, theoretical application and data analysis” was the most prominent recommendation made by employers in the report.
August has truly highlighted the disconnect between what employers believe are necessary skills, and what students learn and take on board before hunting for a job.
Take the case of 17-year-old Aron Chase, for example. At the beginning of August, he tweeted Shane Legg, co-founder of artificial intelligence (AI) company DeepMind, about how to build a career in the AI sector. Legg said probability theory, theoretical computer science basics and the ability to code well in Python were key.
Dominic Harvey, director at CWJobs, applauded Chase’s initiative but thought Legg expected too much from schools. “The reality is that the skills Legg lists as essential are often overlooked in the UK education system.
“While maths and science rightly continue to be prioritised alongside reading and writing, more recognition needs to be given to IT and tech as a subject with the necessary investment made in teaching personnel. Building our tech capability from the bottom up is vital in making sure the UK continues to advance in the sector and remains globally competitive.”
The skills gap will end up costing the economy billions a year, and with the UK keen to be seen as a leader in the tech space, the onus must be placed on ramping up digital skills. Especially after Andy Haldane, chief economist at Bank of England, warned in 2015 that “the set of human skills machines could reproduce, at lower cost, has both widened and deepened”.
Eradicating bias in sectors such as technology
The government’s Industrial Strategy – updated in June 2018 – brought a reason for the STEM skills gap to light. While the number of STEM undergraduates has been increasing, it said, there remains unmet demand from employers.
The report explained: “Some 40% of employers reported a shortage of STEM graduates as being a key barrier in recruiting appropriate staff. However, jobs in science, research, engineering and technology are expected to rise at double the rate of other occupations between now and 2023.
“We know that the pipeline of students studying STEM-related courses narrows as it reaches higher levels. Of the 16-year-olds who have achieved an A*-C grade in GCSE maths, fewer than a quarter continue to study maths after age 16. A significant proportion of STEM graduates do not go into STEM occupations.”
Unconscious bias still rears its ugly head. Numerous pieces of research highlight that the divide starts early in a child’s life – and it hinders them from taking up skills that could be in high demand by employers.
Sarah Kaiser, employee experience, diversity and inclusion lead at Fujitsu EMEIA, suggested at the end of August that there’s a particular lack of awareness of the opportunities that exist.
She also maintained there was an inaccurate perception that some groups, such as women or LGBT+ individuals, do not belong in certain sectors.
“We need to recognise that old-fashioned biases are still built into too many organisations and jobs,” Kaiser explained. “At the end of the day, it is only by engaging a diverse array of people in that we can hope to protect the future competitiveness of the UK economy.”