Is there a skills crisis?  Do schools and colleges contribute to it?


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Despite performance levels in education being higher than ever, some continue to bang on about skills shortages and about young people not being ‘ready for work’. According to the British Chamber of Commerce for example, two-thirds of businesses believe that secondary schools are not effective in preparing young people for employment and could do more to get them onto the career level. According to the BCC  director John Longworth ‘ high youth unemployment and business skills gaps are a cause for national embarrassment…..preparing students to face potential employers should be given the same level of priority as academic achievement in schools’. But is there a skills shortage and can schools and colleges be seen as contributing to this?

In the UK, unemployment continues to fall –almost reaching the level it stood at before the 2008 economic downturn.  But it’s also the case that pay rises remain subdued – with increases of just below 2.5% during the last year. If there were significant skills shortage in the economy, this would not be the case. Skill shortages would mean employers bidding up.  According to the highly regarded Certified Institute of Personnel and Development ( CIPD)  while half of employers may have hiring issues, only about a tenth of current vacancies are ‘hard to fill’ with the most common way of filling these being upskilling and upgrading existing employees.

This does not mean there are not particular difficulties in particular sectors like the construction industry and in parts of manufacturing and in parts of the public sector where training budgets have been cut back.   But according to CIPD only about a third of hard to fill vacancies – in otherwords just  5%  – are due to skill shortages. As the post below emphasises, employers continue to rely on new supplies of labour to fill low-skilled, low-paid vacancies.

The CIPD data reflects a more general trend –that employees are just as likely to be over-qualified for the work that is available. The most recent UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) skills survey reported large numbers of workers  not being able to, or not needing to use their skills. This is partly because of the large number of graduates  being pushed down into non-graduate work, but it’s also because as the CIPD previously reported, one in five of UK work roles only required a primary education and employment data shows that it is slow skilled work that is expanding the fastest.

So it’s difficult to argue that schools and colleges are holding back economic growth and that young people are not suitably prepared for work, though this doesn’t mean that the status of vocational learning should not be improved  its content broadened  and that the cutbacks in work experience placements should not be reversed.  These should all be part of a ‘general  education’ that could replace the narrow academic learning  which the CBI recently argued was not relevant to the needs of the 21st century.


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