‘Tal­ent rev­o­lu­tion’ vi­tal to boost UK’s skill lev­els


WHEN I was younger, my grand­mother was al­ways able to pluck out a Welsh proverb from thin air to de­scribe any sit­u­a­tion.

One she was par­tic­u­larly fond of quot­ing, es­pe­cially when I came back home from univer­sity, was “Nerth gwlad, ei gwybo­daeth” or roughly trans­lated, “a nation’s strength is its knowl­edge”.

As this nation looks set to go through an­other pe­riod of change and un­cer­tainty, that proverb rings truer ev­ery day. The im­por­tance of the development of skills and knowl­edge has be­come even more crit­i­cal to the com­pet­i­tive­ness of the UK econ­omy.

The im­por­tance of the chal­lenges we face have been pointed out in a num­ber of re­ports by the main busi­ness rep­re­sen­ta­tive or­gan­i­sa­tions. For ex­am­ple, a CBI sur­vey showed that 68% of busi­nesses ex­pect their need for staff with higher-level skills to grow in the years ahead.

How­ever, more than half of those sur­veyed be­lieve that they will not be able to ac­cess enough work­ers with the re­quired skills. More con­cern­ing is the fact that the de­mand for highly skilled work­ers is high within key sec­tors which drive the UK econ­omy, such as engi­neer­ing science and hi-tech, con­struc­tion and man­u­fac­tur­ing.

This skill shortage is not lim­ited to large firms. The Fed­er­a­tion of Small Busi­nesses (FSB) found that, at an owner-man­ager level, the low lev­els of man­age­ment and lead­er­ship com­pe­tences is af­fect­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity by hav­ing a neg­a­tive ef­fect on the growth po­ten­tial of small firms.

In fact, a sur­vey for the FSB found that only a quar­ter of smaller busi­nesses had un­der­taken man­age­ment train­ing in the pre­vi­ous year, with a quar­ter hav­ing un­der­taken no man­age­ment train­ing at all. And it’s not only owner-man­agers who are los­ing out, with only 20% of small busi­nesses seek­ing ex­ter­nal man­age­ment train­ing for their em­ploy­ees.

This shows that the scale of some of the prob­lems fac­ing busi­nesses as they look to up­skill to face the chal­lenges of an in­creas­ingly com­pet­i­tive mar­ket­place.

Un­for­tu­nately, some have ar­gued that while there is a clear de­mand for up­grad­ing skills, the ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor in the coun­try has yet to come up with a com­pre­hen­sive ap­proach to deal­ing with th­ese is­sues at all lev­els. And while most of third-level ed­u­ca­tion in this coun­try is geared to­wards pro­vid­ing new en­trants into the work­force, it is easy to for­get that nine out of 10 of the cur­rent work­force will still be work­ing in a decade.

Cer­tainly, it can­not be as­sumed that ed­u­ca­tion fin­ishes with school or univer­sity and that in­creas­ing ac­cess to life­long learn­ing will al­low work­ers to im­prove their skills for the ben­e­fit of their em­ployer or to shift into new in­dus­tries.

But this is not easy to achieve and a study com­mis­sioned by the De­part­ment for Ed­u­ca­tion showed that the cur­rent skills shortage could get worse be­cause the num­ber of adults in train­ing or ed­u­ca­tion has fallen to its low­est level on record (from 46% in 2001 to 37% in 2018), with most peo­ple sur­veyed say­ing that they did not plan to un­der­take any train­ing in the next three years ei­ther.

Given this, per­haps the key mes­sage for pol­i­cy­mak­ers is how they align the world of work and the world of ed­u­ca­tion so that de­mand and sup­ply re­flect each other more closely. In­deed, the fact that only a fifth of busi­nesses across the UK are cre­at­ing part­ner­ships with the ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor to try to ad­dress key chal­lenges is enor­mously dis­ap­point­ing.

For Wales, this may present a real op­por­tu­nity to en­sure that gov­ern­ment, busi­nesses and ed­u­ca­tional providers work more closely to­gether to de­liver a com­pre­hen­sive and work­able ap­proach to im­prov­ing skills in the work­place.

This means a tal­ent rev­o­lu­tion must take place that in­volves the re­think­ing of ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems that are fit for pur­pose in the 21st cen­tury. In some cases, this will in­volve closer co-op­er­a­tion be­tween or­gan­i­sa­tions that would nor­mally see each other as com­peti­tors so that they lever­age the ex­per­tise of dif­fer­ent stake­hold­ers and en­sure that they meet the var­i­ous skills chal­lenges.

In par­tic­u­lar, the ar­ti­fi­cial bar­rier be­tween for­mal ed­u­ca­tion and ap­plied train­ing must be bro­ken so that there is a seam­less two-way trans­fer of knowl­edge be­tween aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions and busi­ness or­gan­i­sa­tions.

With Brexit seem­ingly on the mind of ev­ery politi­cian at the mo­ment, it may be dif­fi­cult for those run­ning this coun­try to think of any­thing else. But once that is­sue is set­tled, it is ab­so­lutely vi­tal that this nation re­sponds pos­i­tively to th­ese chal­lenges go­ing for­ward and en­sures that the right solutions are sup­ported to help de­velop the skills re­quired to grow the econ­omy.

Rui Vieira

> A skilled work­force is more im­por­tant than ever

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