Leadership & Productivity

British skills gap – Why we can’t afford to bury our heads in the sand

6 min read

03 November 2017

Former special projects journalist

The British skills gap is a problem for businesses with ambitions of scaling up. How can you make sure you have access to the right talent?

The British skills gap is a huge issue for the nation, and small businesses are often the hardest hit. Here, we outline the problem, and the ways in which it can affect an ambitious scale-up company.

Earlier this year, the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, reported that two decades of underinvestment and failed policy on skills had left the UK trailing behind Europe in literacy, numeracy, learning and development and digital skills.

The report highlighted multiple failings, including:

• England and Northern Ireland rank in the bottom four OECD countries for literacy and numeracy among 12-24 year-olds
• The UK ranks bottom out of 19 countries on young people’s computer problem solving skills
• UK employers spend less on training that other major EU economies, and less than the EU average
• The UK is fourth from the bottom on the EU league tables on participation in job-related adult learning.

The CIPD raised concerns that this could leave the UK under-prepared for a post-Brexit future, when the skills gap could potentially widen further if access to talent outside the UK becomes harder to obtain.

Lizzie Crowley, skills adviser for the CIPD and co-author of the report, commented: “While more efforts are being made to reform education, it’s clear that there needs to be a much greater emphasis on learning and development in the workplace.

“As we move towards Brexit, and possible restrictions on overseas talent, it’s crucial that government works in partnership with education providers and businesses to address these deep-rooted issues that continue to blight individual and business potential.”

This is not some intangible problem for government to solve – it is affecting real small businesses every day, as the challenge to recruit becomes harder and harder.

Small businesses are already at a disadvantage when it comes to recruiting, as often there will be a smaller pool of resources to draw on to retain the best candidates.

With the brightest and best being snapped up by corporates, small businesses risk being left behind.

What do businesses have to say

• “The skills gap is very evident in the UK, particularly in the digital arena. Finding people who already have experience and real commercial skills, not just knowledge from textbooks, is a difficult process,” said Dawn McGruer, founder and head trainer at Business Consort. “For our business, recruiting quality talent is a challenge because university degrees in marketing often contain minimal digital. This needs to change if we are to prepare our workforce to take advantage of a promising digital future.”

• “The Grand has suffered from the skills gap for chefs. Not enough good-quality chefs are coming out of colleges, and many of those who are, are either joining other industries such as care home catering or choosing not to go in to the industry after college,” said Sarah Hoyle, personnel and development manager at the Grand Hotel. “Recruiting is difficult, and especially since Brexit there are far fewer European candidates as there is so much uncertainty.”

• “Recruiting high quality digital marketing staff with the proven skills and knowledge can be a challenge. Staff with the right mix of skills/knowledge and experience are in high demand and the competition can be fierce when the right candidates become available,” said Michael Bradbury, HR manager at Bring Digital.

• “We are in the electronics manufacturing industry, and the skills gap is very front of mind,” said Jenny Goward, HR director at Fabrinet UK. “We spend a lot of time as an organisation working with local schools, as well as university students in offering them an insight into a career in our industry. We’ve found over a number of years that the numbers of students interested in a career in STEM is dwindling.”

What’s next?

It’s not all doom and gloom, there are many things a scaleup can do to tackle the problem. From offering benefits such a flexible working, upskilling employees on the job or taking on apprentices – there are ways to work within your budget and become a scaleup success.

Next week, we will explore the apprenticeship scheme in more detail, so stay tuned to the Scale-up Hub!

This article is part of a wider campaign called the Scale-up Hub, a section of Real Business that provides essential advice and inspiration on taking your business to the next level. It’s produced in association with webexpenses and webonboarding, a fast-growing global organisation that provides cloud-based software services that automate expenses management and streamline the employee onboarding process.