Opinion

UK labour market: Closing the skills gap

5 min read

09 May 2014

The UK is suffering from mixed messages when it comes to understanding the unemployment problem.

On the one hand there are reports claiming unemployment is going down – The Office of National Statistics recently announced that unemployment was down 6.5 per cent points on the previous year. On the other hand, some businesses are complaining that they can’t build the workforce they require, due to a lack of skilled workers in the UK.

For example, The UK Commission for Employment and Skills found that 22 per cent of un-filled job openings were due to a lack of skills. This demonstrates that while employment is growing, there is a fundamental gap of skilled workers in the labour market. This needs to be filled if the UK is going to continue to attract businesses to the UK market and remain competitive on an international stage.

Employment gaps and the UK economy

Thriving businesses are a lifeline for Britain’s economy and are driving down unemployment, but if the supply of skilled workers isn’t up to scratch, many businesses face the choice of moving operations elsewhere or risking their own survival. This impacts not only the overall employment statistics, but also the UK’s economic activity levels. With fewer businesses in the UK, and those that are operating having a sub-par workforce, the UK will find it hard to compete with other countries and could lose valuable contracts that are critical to the health of the UK economy.

It is only by addressing the skills gap issue in today’s job market that the UK will be able to make the most of its labour reserves, prove to enterprises that it is ripe for businesses, and prevent the UK economy from contracting.

Creating the paths to success

The UK has the potential to close the current skills gap. To achieve this, however, the UK Government must work with local councils, businesses, schools and colleges to invest in schemes that motivate the workforce and provide opportunities to build these much needed skills. Put simply, it is a balance of finding jobs to match skills and developing skills to fill jobs.

Most important is the need to train young people in the right careers. Schools and colleges need to begin this process by encouraging young people to specialise in subjects where there is a direct correlation to the lack of skills in the job market, for example, engineering and science. The Government also needs to incentivise businesses – whether through tax incentives or other financial support – to offer apprenticeship schemes and work placements that give people the chance to use their skills. 

As an example, Comtek has a long-running, successful apprenticeship scheme that, even though it involved a hefty initial investment, has benefitted the company tremendously in terms of expertise. In an economy of tight budgets and with enterprises that are often relatively small in size, the Government should step in to alleviate the initial financial burden of training staff for the long term benefit of the economy.

For those who are enthused to use their skill-set to start their own businesses, support and advice must be offered that can help turn viable business ideas into a reality. Successful business leaders should get involved here, by inspiring and guiding those new to business ownership. The result will not only be new businesses and new revenue streams, which will contribute positively to the UK economy, but also a wider variety and greater number of jobs to help further stimulate the labour market in the UK.

Taking responsibility

There are many advantages to be had by closing the skills gap. Young people will see more job openings, will have more transferable skills, and are more likely to find a career for life. For businesses, they will often gain loyal employees who are specifically trained to meet their needs. On a wider scale, the UK will see a significant rise in the number of people in jobs and, crucially, businesses won’t have unfilled vacancies because of a lack of potential employees. This will result in more businesses being attracted to the UK and, ultimately, a more prosperous and buoyant economy.

Askar Sheibani is Comtek CEO & Entrepreneurship Champion for Wales.