How do we plug the Skills Gap? - full report

Cooperation and Coordination needed to close the skills gap

A particularly busy and well attended In Business event took place at Birkenhead School attended by 80 local leading business people. The seminar theme was How do we plug the Skills Gap?  With an expert line up of speakers, each gave their thoughts on the issues and possible solutions to moving forward through a series of presentations.

Mark Basnett, Managing Director of Liverpool City Region LEP, hosted the event and outlined the scale of the problem posed by the skills gap. He emphasised the challenge we face in order to effectively address the problem and the economic and social benefits to be gained from doing so.

“The skills gap is a real and genuine challenge for businesses across the North West and is cited as the biggest barrier to growth. Research indicates that almost two thirds of employers in the region have problems finding skilled staff. One third of North West firms report difficulty in hiring staff with technical and job-specific skills and a quarter say it is hard to recruit people with basic computer literacy. Being unable to effectively recruit has negative impacts on growth, customer service and emotional wellbeing of existing workers.”

“The skills gap is a complex issue, with lots of discussion about causes and solutions. One thing is clear though and that is the huge importance the business community places on addressing the issue and finding a solution to it. Skills gap is the biggest constraint on economic growth. Liverpool City Region economy grew by 5% last year so the demand for skilled labour continues to rise. Students are struggling with the transition from education to employment and this is reflected in the low employment rates for 16 – 24 years olds. The question we need to ask is how do we improve on that? Our response is crucial to the future economic success of the region and our workforce.”

Paul Vicars, Headmaster of Birkenhead School spoke of their commitment to open up a broader avenue of access to further education. He noted the need to identify opportunities outside of formal academic routes to include apprenticeships and also to offer a bespoke service to create a ‘best match’ for each individual student. He also commented on the need to change perceptions of the apprenticeship programme.  The school is aware of the skills gap and recognises the need for the education system to change and adapt its approach to help address the issue. Birkenhead school has recently adopted an apprenticeship programme to complement the long established and traditional academic route through school and into the university system.”

“Today’s students are living in exciting times because of the variety of routes they have into their future career of choice. The challenge for schools is to identify the opportunities that exist for students and guide each student along the right path for them to achieve the best results. The need exists for a bespoke service for each student rather than a catchall which may suit some more than others. The school has launched its Birkenhead Futures Programme to lower 6th form pupils to provide individual assessments, advice and guidance across a raft of options, with specialist staff covering apprentice and internship options.”

“Modern apprenticeships have changed greatly and provide a direct route into the widest range of careers, including areas like law, accountancy and engineering. What perhaps is missing from the apprenticeship equation is a centralised one stop shop to coordinate   and administrate employers and applicants. In the same way that Universities use UCAS to offer places for students a centralised apprentice administration could be beneficial where those in need of apprentices could access, assess and recruit from pool of suitable candidates.”

“There is a need to address preconceptions of apprenticeships in the wider community and among parents, by selling the undoubted benefits that exist. Birkenhead school has initiated a number of industry specific forums and conferences where employers from healthcare, engineering, media and art have been able to showcase their career opportunities to students and their families. We need to inform students and inspire them about the myriad of opportunities that exist after school.”

“Birkenhead school has some of the best A level results in Merseyside but is not solely focussed on results. We also push students to develop a wide skill set and abilities that will appeal to employers. Soft skills, including problem solving, mindfulness, critical thinking, debate and public speaking are catered for within the student’s timetable. The aim is to develop more rounded, confident and adaptable individuals with better life skills and greater appeal to employers.”

Rob Tab, Liverpool City Region Employment and Skills Board underlined the passion and commitment held by Steve Rotherham to address the skills gap and get residents into and back into work. He outlined the extensive research the LEP has conducted to identify present skills shortages but also to highlight areas where future needs may arise.

“The LEP has a strategy formulated following in depth research and consultation with 1,800 employers to identify those key areas that need attention. There is a requirement to improve English, maths and digital education and qualifications but it’s more than that as it’s also about work readiness and preparing people for work. There is also an opportunity for employers to recruit differently by focussing on identifying applicant’s skills as well as their qualifications.”

“The LEP have identified the opportunity to improve employment rates further. The City Region enjoys employment of 72% and work can be done to progress workers into better jobs through training while also targeting economically inactive residents that make up the long term unemployed. Local unemployment is below national averages but we need a clear focus to reduce it further. Likewise more work is needed to lower the skills shortage in growth sectors in order to solve productivity issues and reap the economic benefits.”

“An extensive skills survey has identified the most pressing skills gaps. 42% of employers report a technical skills gap, both in terms of recruitment but also the need to train existing staff. The LEP is working with employers, business networks, local Chambers of Commerce and Sector Boards, from healthcare, visitor economy, manufacturing, professional services, maritime and others to prepare action plans for present and future skills development. The emphasis is on building a flexible workforce through a coordinated mix of education, work experience and training.”

“We need better communication and guidance for students and parents to encourage their involvement and we need to inform, inspire and motivate them about possible careers that are available locally via skills shows. Employers need to tell training providers what their needs are and we need to encourage all stakeholders to get involved in the process and not sit on the sidelines.”

Damian Burdin, CEO at Progress to Excellence focussed our attention on the Apprenticeship Levy and how it could be better utilised to improve benefits for the local economy. A regional levy under spend is in danger of being reclaimed by central government and action is needed to prevent this. The Apprenticeship Levy raises around £2.5bn annually to be spent on training apprentices and also allows contributors to share their funds with smaller businesses in their supply chain. In the North West however the number of apprenticeships has fallen from 500,000 in 2017 to 370,000 in 2019 and as a result there is a substantial under spend from the Apprenticeship Levy fund which is in danger of being lost from the training system and returned to central government.”

“Representations are underway, calling on the Government to make it easier for employers to keep and share their levy funds rather than sending it back. In the meantime, it is a matter of urgency that employers with levy funds work within the current guidelines to use or gift their own funds before they are returned to government and lost to the region. This could potentially involve hundreds of millions of pounds across the region which could be used to effectively help close the skills gap.”

“If the levy under spend could be kept in the region under a centralised administration it could be used to provide training for everyone who needs or wants it and every employer could benefit. We can build a better skilled workforce and keep those workers employed locally to the benefit of the local economy. Any business that feels they have unspent funds can contact the Chamber to discuss ways of gifting.”   

Chris Finn, Director of Student Advancement at Liverpool John Moores University explained how the university is building mutually beneficial partnerships with industry that will work for students and employers. They are creating opportunities for employers to contribute to course design and opening lines of engagement between students and employers to create students who are better skilled and more ready for the workplace.

“There have been serious efforts to remove the boundaries between lectures and workplace. This has been achieved by inviting employers to advise on course content, design and delivery. This gives employers a presence on the course so that students are ‘job ready’ when they graduate. This also benefits the local economy because some 75% of LJMU students stay in the North West after graduation with 53% staying in Merseyside.”

“Another interesting statistic he shared is that by age 42, the average worker will have had a dozen jobs in 6 different sectors. This is amplified today by the speed at which the workplace is changing across many industries. It further highlights the need to develop students who are open to change and who possess an adaptive skill set and the flexibility to thrive in a changing world. This is about helping students to develop soft skills like communication, collaboration, problem solving, leadership and decision making in addition to the hard academic skills of industry. But equally it’s about employers being proactive; communicating their needs and linking up with universities to advise and develop content, sponsor courses, host students and display at exhibitions. In this way they can help to develop students with the rounded skill set needed for successful careers.”

Joanne Finnerty, Managing Director of JF Recruitment lamented the number of CVs received at her company’s head office that do not contain details of any work experience. She emphasised the importance of work experience as a differentiator between candidates with similar academic qualifications and encouraged everyone to seek it out.

“At JF Recruitment, we handle 30 – 100 vacancies in Wirral at any given time and we receive hundreds of CVs from hopeful applicants, but the number of CVs with effective levels of work experience has been in decline over recent years. Twenty years ago almost every CV would have boasted some work experience but now it is the exception rather than the norm.”

“Work experience is one of the most important things on a CV and something we look for first and foremost as a differentiator between candidates. Many candidates have excellent academic records and commendable results but employers want to see that work experience that shows candidates have the relevant life skills and work ethic to ease them into their new job role.”

“If we want to close the skills gap we need to develop a culture of work experience and encourage as many young people to start early and work alongside their studies. The more work experience these young people can get the better for their employability and career prospects in the future. Work experience builds confidence and those soft skills that employers are looking for.”

There were many issues raised which resonated with audience members, many of whom are experiencing some of the recruitment issues created by the skills gap. It’s clear that while the LEP, schools, colleges, employers and training agencies are working to identify and address issues individually, there is a persuasive argument for the need to create a centralised body to coordinate and focus efforts in a structured and targeted manner. The overriding conclusion of the day’s event was that the skills gap is a common obstacle being faced by business across the region and because of that it will take a unified, cooperative and coordinated effort to solve it.





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