Employers bemoan Britain's widening skills gap

The CBI says UK plc is having trouble hiring suitably-skilled staff - and the problem's only going to get worse.

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
The UK's higher-level skills gap isn't just a problem that will afflict us in the future: it's hurting the recovery even now, judging by the latest employer skills survey from the CBI. Apparently, nearly half of the companies surveyed are already having problems recruiting people with the necessary qualifications in science, technology, engineering and maths, aka the STEM subjects. This is by no means the full extent of the UK's skills problem - the survey also showed an alarming deficit in basic literacy, numeracy and employability - but it could prove to be the most intractable and damaging...

All things considered, this latest edition of the CBI's annual survey doesn't paint a terribly encouraging picture. Employers clearly feel that our school system isn't doing anything like enough to prepare students for the world of work, even at a very basic level: 42% said they were unhappy with school leavers' standard of English, while 35% expressed dissatisfaction with their numeracy skills. Almost half said they'd had to pay for remedial training in these areas for recent recruits, which is money they really don't really want to be spending at the moment. At a time when GCSE students are supposedly achieving record results, there's clearly something going wrong somewhere.

This is not just a problem with the core curriculum. The CBI survey also found that school leavers are lacking crucial employability skills like business and customer awareness and self-management. That's surely an argument for schools to invest more time in running extra-curricular courses like the one MT wrote about earlier this year.

And then there's this lack of STEM-qualified people (a problem that companies think will only get worse for over the next few years). The CBI's best guess is that of the 13.5m jobs that will need to be created between now and 2017, more than half will be in managerial, technical and professional roles - so these are exactly the kind of higher-level skills we'll need more of to have any chance of rebalancing our economy and reducing our reliance on the City. Especially since, as the CBI points out, we're up against increasingly stiff international competition for these people (so it might not be easy even to hang on to those we do produce).

The good(ish) news, however, is that at least the Government acknowledges that we have a problem - not surprisingly, since they can still blame it on the last lot. A spokesman for the Department of Education said the CBI was right to draw attention to the issue - and that it was prioritising improvements in English and Maths. That's a good start. But as employers point out, we also need to be boosting higher-level skills by improving the take-up of STEM subjects, or there's a very real danger that UK plc could find itself falling behind over the next decade.

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