Dr Sam Parrett CBE, Group Principal and CEO, London & South East Education Group

Speaking at the launch event of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Quarterly Skills Survey (click here) today alongside its CEO Richard Burge and Jane Gratton from the British Chambers of Commerce, I took the opportunity to highlight the very real ‘skills conundrum’ that we all face.

The report highlights how the pandemic has reduced employment chances for people leaving education with L2 qualifications; the particular issues around digital skills gaps and the changes that remote working have had on business.

But who is responsible and what is the answer to the shortage of skills that so many industries are finding themselves in – including my own education group?

As this latest survey highlights (from a poll of over 500 businesses), encouraging employers to engage with training continues to be a challenge. While many are at least intending to engage, others surveyed are not.

Quite shockingly, two thirds of businesses (63%) reported that they have no intention to employ staff under a range of Government schemes including: apprenticeships, traineeships, internships, the Kickstart Scheme (for 16- to 24-year-olds on Universal Credit) or T-levels. Is this a disconnect between policy and business need or is it more to do with a lack of communication with and support for employers?

As an FE college, we are battling to fill our own skills gaps within our teaching teams. Without industry experts, we are unable to develop the pipeline of future talent across key sectors – from construction to health care.

Recruiting these experts is particularly tough in the current economic climate. With skilled employees’ own industries able to offer much higher salaries than Further Education colleges, we will inevitably struggle to attract the talent we need.

But it’s important to remember that this is not a new issue. The skills shortage areas may have changed over the years, but ultimately, needing businesses to invest in their workforce is an age-old challenge.

And the skills system alone isn’t the solution. In fact, skills by themselves have little value – it’s the application they have within an employment context. Colleges and training providers can’t deliver this alone; it requires genuine partnership working with businesses.

Employer engagement with training providers and colleges is mentioned in the report as a key factor to improving employment prospects. It’s not surprising that a young person who has four or more encounters with an employer is five times less likely to be unemployed as an adult.

The hype around skills is high, but we must balance this carefully with the basic principle of partnership working. From the co-design of curricula and ensuring every skill being taught is relevant - right through to the offering of plentiful and adequate work placements for young people is fundamental.

From our side, we need to support businesses to see the value of investing in skills. This includes the upskilling of their existing workforces and highlighting the longer-term benefits of giving people a strong line of sight to employment and career progression.

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