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Skills gaps, shortages and mismatches – are we asking the right questions?

06 September 2016

After the political turmoil caused by the outcome of the EU referendum, the further education and skills sector was met with a slew of reports. The long-awaited Sainsbury Report was published on the same day as the Government’s Post-16 Skills Plan and this was shortly followed by CBI/Pearson’s latest skills survey – The Right Combination. The sector has also had a bit more clarity in terms of the direction of travel regarding apprenticeships and reports by the Institute for Public Policy Research, SQW and NCFE have highlighted concerns with where this policy is potentially heading. To the untrained eye, these types of reports imply that the skills problems businesses face – skills gaps, shortages and mismatches – are fairly and squarely due to supply side factors. Whether this be the unwieldy number of vocational qualifications or the fact that providers of skills need to do more to ensure people are equipped for the world of work. For me, there is an element of truth to these claims – vocational qualifications can be a bit of a minefield and I don’t know anyone who works in our sector who thinks that there are no more improvements to be made. One of the things I find annoying about reports related to skills is that analysis very rarely focuses on the demand-side of the equation. For example, when skills surveys are undertaken and gaps and/or shortages are reported; what further questions are asked? Are questions asked about the firm’s product/market strategy and how, if at all, this has an impact on its approach to its human resources practices such as recruitment/selection, (non)financial rewards, continuous professional development and workforce planning for example? The approaches firms adopt will have an impact on attracting, retaining and the motivation of staff – Herzberg was one of the first to theorise about this in 1959. For me, the answers to these questions are extremely pertinent and would provide a great insight to the organisation’s approach to human resource management. It wouldn’t surprise me if companies such as Sports Direct, Uber and Deliveroo cite skills gaps, shortages or mismatches, but after the recent negative publicity these particular organisations have faced, I think it would be fair to say that their skills problems may largely be of their own making and not necessarily down to the local college or the qualifications on offer! Ultimately, the demand for and utilisation of skills in workplaces are equally as pertinent to the country’s skills and productivity problems as supply issues are and, moving forwards, this is a key problem that needs to be solved. The Government has a key role to play in this in terms of creating an environment and culture where high quality product/market strategies are desired and pursued by firms, and approaches to human resource practices, including skills development, are suitably high quality. There has been much talk of an industrial strategy by Theresa May’s new administration and this could provide a perfect opportunity to set this particular scene. However, the prospects for this don’t look promising. The closure of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) will, for me, cut off a vital supply of more rational analysis into the nation’s skills problems. Furthermore, if the desired approach was to be adopted by the government, it would mark a departure from the current approach to skills which has been evident for at least 30 years - if not longer. To highlight this, another report published over the summer was the Association of Colleges/London School of Economics’ Institute of Public Affairs work into higher level skills. The work was led by the Right Honourable John Denham – former Secretary of State for Skills. If you haven’t read this I urge you to – it’s superb and up there with the 2014 City and Guilds report into skills policy making - Sense and Instability. These pieces of work focus on successive governments’ obsession with tackling the country’s skills problems by reforming the supply-side of equation and via the creation of numerous targets. A killer line from the Denham report was that successive governments have been great at “hitting targets but missing the point”. There’s a great opportunity to change this and let’s hope Theresa May, Justine Greening and Robert Halfon are in listening mood. Darren Hankey is the Principal of Hartlepool College of Further Education. These issues will be discussed in more detail at our Skills Plan Conference - Implementation of Sainsbury Review on 26 September in London. View the programme and book online.