The skills crisis long pre-dated COVID19

By Olly Newton on

The course of the last three months has transformed how we view the systems in place in the UK more radically than any time since the Second World War. Education and employment have not escaped this – policy makers, government, think tanks and providers themselves are all considering what the future looks like, how we get our young people into secure employment and on the path to success after what will months out of face to face learning. Evidence from the Edge Foundation shows that there are deep skills shortages and mismatches right across the economy. 

There is no doubt that the coronavirus epidemic will see a rising tide of unemployment as the economy sinks into recession. The Resolution Foundation says that more than a third of 18-24 year olds have been furloughed or lost their main job since the start of lockdown. Meanwhile, 2.5 million Universal Credit claims were filed during March and April, reaching 100 per minute on 25 March alone. 

There is no doubt that the virus and lockdown has made things much worse, but this is not a new phenomenon.

Figures from the Government’s own Employer Skills Survey showed 226,000 vacancies created by skills shortages in 2017, up from just 91,000 in 2011. These are jobs that remained unfilled because the right skills couldn’t be found – an economic and social tragedy.

It has cost employers dear - £4.4 billion has been paid out in the past year on recruitment fees, higher salaries and temporary staff. It has also cost young people dear – young people who should have been given the skills they needed to get into and thrive in those jobs. 

Research from before COVID showed that these shortages were widening not shrinking. Research by the Open University publicised by the Edge Foundation shows that nine out of ten organisations (88%) report a shortage of employees with digital skills. Meanwhile, looking to the future, work by the Government’s own Industrial Strategy Council suggested that by 2030, 7 million workers could be underskilled for the requirements of their changing jobs. 

Let me say it again – this was all before the impact of COVID. 

What is really striking though is that employers have been clear for years about the skills they want. Spoiler alert – these are not a match for those written up on Schools Minister Nick Gibb’s chalk board.  

Research by CBI/Pearson showed that over half of employers (60%) value broader skills such as problem solving and three quarters (75%) say they prefer a mix of academic and technical qualifications or view all of them equally. The Department of Education’s own Employer Skills Survey 2017 singled out two particular themes in terms of the skills employers want – technical and practical skills, people and personal skills. 

That report clearly never made it to the Minister’s desk on the seventh floor of Sanctuary Buildings because this Government’s schools policy is going flat out in the opposite direction. Prioritising their ‘EBacc’ and ‘Progress 8’ measures to prioritise academic subjects is removing those like design and technology that focus on technical skills. Their focus on rote learning knowledge for exams is the relic of an age before smartphones that does absolutely nothing to help develop interpersonal skills.  

The truth is that, even at the heart of government, employers are looking more and more for skills and behaviours rather than just exam certificates. 

Surely parents and teachers love exams and times tables? This was never really the case, but latest data from the Edge Foundation and YouGov shows that the pandemic has cemented their views – 78% of teachers surveyed agreed that education needs to change.

Both parents and teachers agreed on how – 92% of parents and 95% of teachers surveyed said that education should help children develop a range of skills like critical thinking, problem solving and communication. 

So now parents, teachers and employers are all agreed on what they want to see. It’s time for the government to make a generational change in the education system. The legacy of this awful virus must be a system that genuinely prepares young people and adults for the skills they need and the challenges we face, not for the labour market and society of 40 years ago. 

Olly Newton, Executive Director, The Edge Foundation