Skills Shortage Update

Dr Dick Evans produced a series of articles for us on the theme of skill shortages and as a follow up we asked him to provide updates on performance. This is the third update.

The debates continue apace about skills shortages with all the paradoxes and contradictions that one has come to accept from this government. The skills summits meet and regurgitate all the old theories about the causes and the supposed remedies but little seems to happen with no subsequent action or improvement. The country excels in establishing committees, committees of enquiry and focus groups, which have created numerous false dawns as the country continues to slip down the international league tables for skills, productivity and investment into research and development (R&D).

The latest piece of DTI gimmickry is the appointment of the chief executive of Dyson to assess the future of manufacturing when his company has just relocated to East Asia!

These short term fixes always seem to come and go depending on the Secretary of State’s pet idea at the time which makes it almost impossible to acquire any confidence in their ability or their department to tackle the underlying problems and develop a long term strategy for the wealth creating base of this country. In contrast comparisons with other similar economies reveal a long-term approach to planning and management of manufacturing and the development of a balanced economy involving service and manufacturing.

One of the confusing issues in trying to understand skills shortages is the amount of contradictory evidence one picks up e.g. one moment we are told that there is an acute shortage of IT specialists and professionals and yet the next moment published figures from e-Skills UK indicates that there are 46,000 fewer people working in IT this year than last year and 56,000 IT staff are ‘unemployed/actively looking for work’. One of the most perplexing aspects in attempting to track skill shortages is the difficulty in getting accurate and meaningful data. Successive governments continually massage and manipulate the figures to their own advantage. Other factors and initiatives further complicate analysis as for example the rush to recruit overseas IT specialists where special arrangements are made to encourage individuals to migrate to this country.

DANGEROUS SHORT TERM SOLUTIONS

It is not the only area where this is a complicating factor. Other fields such as nurses, doctors and teachers appear to solve the problem but this is surely a false and dangerous short term solution masking as it does the real underlying causes. Short term recruitment campaigns do not solve the long term problems – retention is an equally important factor at present 50% of new teachers leave the profession after 5 years and 25% of experienced nurses will leave within the next 5 years. Much of the current unemployment or under employment is caused by companies outsourcing their work overseas, a classic example being one of the last high quality men’s clothing companies in this country relocating to Hungary. It is accepted that much of the nature of manufacturing has changed as this country cannot now compete with the cheaper labour economies abroad but it has singularly failed to anticipate this let alone develop new economies to prepare and compensate for these transformations.

One eternal factor is that of the skill levels in the work force and the supposed failure of the education and training system and who should pick up the bill for compensating for this.

The appearance of the Learning and Skills Councils (LSCs) promised much in terms of a level playing field for funding but the reality is now just dawning that the country cannot afford all the increased public sector expenditure that this government has promised. The latest piece of evidence is the situation with the funding of schools. The extra money does not compensate for all the additional costs the government has placed on LEAs and the schools. One priority we all wanted to see following the Learning and Skills Act was the recognition and the subsequent adequacy of funding for work based learning (WBL) but now there are rumours that the government expects the employers to pick up the tab. Little wonder this long overdue investment in WBL will now not happen – employers are already picking up the increases in costs e.g. NI contributions, environmental taxes, insurance premiums that have occurred over the past five years. Contrary to belief employers in this country already invest a great deal in training and will find it impossible to increase this further with all the other financial burdens the government are intending to place on them.

Graduate quality?

Many employers are becoming disillusioned with the quality of graduates in such disciplines as chemistry and are now returning to the firmer approach of growing their own timber through day release or in-house provision or apprenticeship schemes. A number of mixed economy degree programmes in science fail to produce specialist graduates that companies require. It is the inability of the government to recognise these complexities and resultant conflicts that makes their often rather simplistic approaches to this extremely important issue seem so futile and ineffective.

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