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SMEs fears for future skilled workforce - colleges best placed to support them

20 May 2019

6 IN 10 SMEs SAY FINDING EMPLOYEES WITH THE RIGHT SKILLS IS THEIR BIGGEST CONCERN – WITH 58% BELIEVING THE UK WILL GET ‘LEFT BEHIND’ IF THE GOVERNMENT DOESN’T ADDRESS THE ISSUE BUSINESS LEADERS SAY THAT POST-BREXIT, COLLEGES ARE BEST PLACED TO SKILL THE FUTURE WORKFORCE HOWEVER, A SUPPORTING STUDY OF COLLEGE PRINCIPALS REVEALS 8 IN 10 FEAR FUNDING CUTS WILL LIMIT THEIR ABILITY TO FILL SKILLS GAPS Over half (58%) of small to medium-sized businesses (SMEs) across the UK are warning that the country risks being ‘left behind’ if the Government doesn’t address skills gaps through education, according to new research released by the Association of Colleges (AOC). The study - commissioned among 534 decision makers at SMEs to mark Colleges Week (15th - 19th October) – showed that 51% are finding it more difficult to find employees with the right skills compared to five years ago – and for almost 6 in 10 (58%), finding skilled candidates is the biggest concern about the future of their business. With Brexit around the corner, these businesses say it is colleges (48%) who are best placed to skill the future workforce (compared to Universities (30%) and schools (21%)). Yet a supporting survey conducted among 70 college principals in England provided a unique snapshot of their concerns: 4 in 5 (80%) fear the impacts of cuts to colleges may limit their ability to fill skills gaps in the local workforce, while almost all (95%) principals are concerned about the effects cuts are having on their college. The average college in England has had to cut over 15 courses in the past five years specifically due to lack of funding, and teaching hours have been cut by almost 9 hours per week. This is perhaps not surprising given that colleges receive the same amount of funding now that they did in 1990. Over the last ten years, colleges have had to deal with an average funding cut of 30%. In fact, the only part of the education budget to have had year-on-year cuts since 2010 is further education. These cuts have resulted in: A drastic drop in learning opportunities for adults Fewer hours of teaching time and support for young people. Students in English colleges get an average of 15 hours contact per week, compared with 20-25 per week in Europe, that’s 360 hours less contact time each year College teachers paid less than 80% the rate of school staff 87% of college principals say they’re currently facing issues with staff retention as a direct result of funding, while 9 in 10 (90%) worry about being able to recruit new staff David Hughes, Chief Executive, Association of Colleges said: “This survey confirms that businesses are finding it more and more difficult to recruit people with the right skills. That risks serious damage to our businesses, our global competitiveness, and our economy. Colleges can help with this across the country, in every community. They can develop people with the right skills and attitudes to support successful businesses. This is not about simply asking the Government to spend more money; it is about investing for a return which will benefit all of us. A decade of cuts to college funding in our austerity decade has gone too far and must be reversed if we want to make a success of Brexit.” College principals also warn that these cuts have wide ranging outcomes with four-fifths saying it will limit the country’s ability to re-skill post Brexit. The majority (64%) of principals say healthcare will be affected, with the number of social and healthcare professionals the country needs not being provided. STEM is also in the firing line with 84% concerned about the knock-on effects to the number of skilled workers in these industries. Eight in 10 are also worried about the impact on disadvantaged young people’s ability to access higher education and jobs within the occupational services. Andrew Harden, Head of Further Education at University and College Union commented: “Skills are absolutely crucial to the UK’s economic success but right now our further education sector is fighting for its life. Colleges specialise in helping those who are often hardest for schools and universities to reach. They are remarkable places which transform lives and, given the chance, could help transform our country too. However, without urgent investment in our colleges and their staff, the government risks squandering the potential of millions of people." Colleges Week – which is part of the Love Our Colleges campaign – will see a national lobby of parliament on Wednesday 17 October – where principals, staff and students will meet with their MPs to talk to them about the impact of the funding issues they face. An additional protest by the unions outside Parliament is expected to draw crowds of over 3,000 people to march in support of fair pay for college staff. NUS Vice President (Further Education) Emily Chapman said: “For years further education has been disregarded by the government, as we inch closer to towards our exit from the European Union there is an increasing worry about the future and a skilled workforce. Rightly so, attention is now turning to what role post-16 education has in making sure learners are equipped for the ever changing political and economic landscape. With detrimental cuts impacting staff and students, immediate action is needed to restore levels of funding and commit to providing high-quality institutions that will be able to deliver the skilled workforce that the UK needs. Not only this, investment into quality skills education is imperative and a true lifelong learning strategy should be the government’s focus.” Kevin Brandstatter, GMB National Officer, said: “GMB works with employers of all sizes and in all sectors economy and the most common complaint from employers is a lack of skills, particularly among young people. Our further education colleges have a vital role to play in addressing these shortfalls and GMB is pleased and happy to support the work of our members in colleges to address these problems.” UNISON head of education Jon Richards said: "Austerity is far from over in colleges across the country, despite the Prime Minister’s assurances that the end is nigh. Teaching and support staff are working wonders with thousands of young people, many of whom have been failed in some way by the school system. “College staff are achieving miracles despite an ever diminishing pot of resources. They're committed to ensuring the next generation of talented youngsters and the country has a future. Ministers too must show they care and begin to invest properly in further education."