Mind the Skills Gap
nick cowen, 18 October 2011
By Emily Clarke
According to recent figures from the Office of National Statistics UK unemployment now stands at 2.57 million or 8.1%. Perhaps even more worrying is the news that the number of 16-24 year olds out of work has crept ever closer to 1 million, currently sitting at a record high of 991 000 or 21.3%. The Government and the public are naturally eager to bring down these figures, many hoping that it will simultaneously reduce the levels of youth disaffection that they saw as particularly apparent over the summer. However, rather than focussing on job creation alone it is perhaps important to take note of bodies such as the Skills Commission which has recently pointed out in their report “Technicians and Progress” that part of the problem is not lack of jobs but lack of skills with which to perform them.
Evidence from the report drawn up by the Skills Commission shows that the Energy and Utility sector of British industry alone will require upwards of 90,000 new recruits over the next 5 years. Other surveys of employment statistics have also picked this up, showing engineering and manufacturing more generally to be areas where job vacancies are on the rise compared to many other sectors.
Some efforts are already being made to address the skills gap that prevents take up of these job opportunities. The Apprenticeship Grant for Employers Scheme, for example, which provides financial incentive to smaller employers to take on unemployed 16-17 year olds as apprentices, was well received by the Federation for Small Businesses. Furthermore there were recent announcements about the creation of several new University Technical Colleges. These colleges will be aimed at those predominantly younger than university age but will be sponsored by a university and backed by companies such as Rolls Royce, Toshiba and Boeing in order to give potential technicians an early start to their vocational training.
The return to something akin to the old Polytechnics should be welcomed for the work it will do in in giving people a fighting chance to fill the job vacancies that are available by giving them the requisite knowledge and skills. More work is still needed however and not just in the physical realm of funding for equipment and premises. For example, one challenge that may have to be tackled is a perceived or actual divide between rich and poor whereby those who cannot afford to go to university are forced into taking the “lesser” route of technical training. Efforts should be made to ensure that a stark dichotomy between “academic” and “practical” routes does not arise and that some of the assumptions behind Tony Blair’s drive for higher university attendance are erased.
Given the relative lack of publicity for Britain’s success in the recent WorldSkills event, hosted in London, there is still some way to go before Britain truly celebrates the achievements and potential of a technically skilled younger generation.