Former Dyson CEO on how to close the skills gap

Our productivity levels are lagging. We're paralysed by Brexit. And we're being outpaced by rival economies. Let's not fail our young people too.

by Martin McCourt
Last Updated: 12 Dec 2017

The UK’s skills crisis is well-documented. Today, an estimated 40,000 science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) roles go unfilled every year – a number that is set to reach a staggering 1.3 million by 2030. According to the CBI, 56% of the country’s employers highlight the skills deficit as the number one challenge they’re facing. My time spent at the helm of Dyson certainly brought this home.

The impact of the skills crisis is clearly being felt, with the Chancellor’s Autumn Budget last month placing particularly strong emphasis on the need to improve STEM education and training in the UK. Increased government investment in digital skills-based courses and further education colleges offering ‘T-levels’, as well as plans to boost apprentiship numbers are all significant steps forward.

Yet, data from the G7 reminds us of the challenging reality we still face – the UK’s productivity output last year was 8.5% behind Germany, 11.5% behind France, and over 26% behind the US. The UK is losing its competitive edge and being outpaced by these rival economies.

Germany’s robust apprenticeship system sees 41 per cent of the country’s students entering apprenticeships, which has led to low levels of youth unemployment of just 6.7% - well below the EU average. Meanwhile, the French government have vowed to set up funds of over €10bn for tech start-ups and innovators.

While our European neighbours continue to plough onwards, we too often appear hamstrung, prevented from action in the face of an exit from the European Union that no-one seems able to predict or prepare for – but will certainly impact our skills provision.

However, that ‘we’ doesn’t only include government action – it’s all too easy to point to the gaps in the Chancellor’s Budget or the flaws in the apprenticeship levy. If we’re going to close the skills gap, business has a vital role to play. 

The IPPR think tank has shown that employer spending on training is in the UK is over £6bn less than the EU average for continued vocational education. Employers in England are also spending £5.1bn less on training in real terms than they were a decade ago.

Beyond supporting the apprenticeship levy, employers need to do more to upskill their existing workforce and encourage life-long learning. Investing in initiatives such as group training schemes, personal learning accounts or paid training leave for in-demand skills have been highly recommended by the OECD.

Internal training is vital, but the skills crisis is bigger than any one company – that’s why business must do more to develop the UK’s wider talent pool.

That’s a lesson I’ve been learning first hand for the last three years. In that time, I’ve acted as a non-executive director at Your Life, a private sector- led campaign which has been aiming to get 14-16 year olds excited about STEM subjects at school and highlight the career possibilities that are available by studying maths and physics at A-Level.

That’s no mean feat. Research we commissioned with AT Kearney showed an alarming lack of knowledge of the career paths dependent on, and open to, people with STEM qualifications. Many saw STEM subjects as suitable only for an elite and, too often, male group of students. 

However, we’ve also seen the incredible impact that engaged businesses can have through just a few interactions. Over the last three years we’ve facilitated a series of ‘Best School Trips’ – opportunities for young people to visit dynamic businesses that rely on STEM skills to succeed, from Shazam to Amazon and from Coca-Cola to Sky. As a result, 77% of students who went on just one visit say they would consider studying maths and physics.

Our aim has been to urge businesses to think innovatively about how they can better connect schools with future employers, linking careers to the curriculum through digital learning platforms. We recently enabled further employer encounters through an online live chat platform that connects school students with employers in regions where employer and school engagement is low.

But keeping students and employers connected must continue beyond school level – and it’s clear that industry can do more.

Businesses can truly take the lead in closing the gap by showing students that they are willing to invest in them. In-house training, practical assistance and external courses can help graduate recruits to excel, and leads to a more motivated and effective working environment.

Together with some brilliant, committed corporate partners and genuinely inspirational entrepreneurs, Your Life managed to reach 23% of the UK’s 16-year-olds with an aspect of our campaign. We’ve certainly moved the dial – but there’s still a long way to go.

Martin McCourt is non-executive director at Your Life and former chief executive of Dyson.  


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