UK businesses are facing a long term labour shortage. Current employer data suggests that there will be 13.5 million job vacancies over the next 10 years, with only seven million young people leaving schools and colleges. How do employers fill the gaps and will apprenticeships alone solve the problem?

The government’s commitment to apprenticeships has enabled a rapid increase in vocational learning opportunities which will certainly go a long way towards bridging the fast developing skills gap. Apprenticeships are expected to contribute £3.4 billion a year to the economy over the next 10 years and are a key means of creating a skilled and motivated workforce.

Although initially slow to take off, organisations of all sizes now see the benefits that apprentices bring, including increased productivity, improved competitiveness and a committed and competent workforce in a cost-effective manner. And at a time where UK businesses consider skills shortages and recruitment difficulties a bigger threat to performance than soaring oil prices and declining consumer spending, apprenticeships are vitally important.

However, the statistics are clear: projected job vacancies are almost double the number of young people coming out of schools and colleges, and apprenticeships alone do not provide a long term solution to the skills shortage. In short, we are running out of workers and employers must consider alternative ways of tackling the problem.

Recruiting, training and retaining the skills of older workers is the most effective way of bridging the gap. People are living longer and staying active – the majority of people currently aged 65 will live beyond 80, and some beyond 110. Older people now represent an increasing proportion of the working population and by 2020, 36 per cent of the UK’s workforce will be over 50, according to the Government Actuary’s Department.

Surveys consistently show that the majority of older workers are willing to work longer if they enjoy their work and are able to work flexibly. This is underpinned by statistics showing that 54 per cent of workers aged 55 and above intend to work beyond the state pension age.

The figures also suggest that the UK’s population will continue to grow proportionately older. The average median age, which was 39.7 years in 2010, is expected to reach 42.2 by 2035, with a 300 per cent rise in the number of people aged 90 also being anticipated. It’s predicted the number of people aged 95 and above will rise more than four-fold, whereas those aged over 100 will increase from 13,000 in 2010 to 110,000 in 2035 – an eight-fold increase.

Some employers have expressed a belief that immigration will fill the broadening skills gap, but this is unrealistic. Current net immigration is around 200,000 people per year and is something the government is committed to reducing. Unlike migrant workers, the older UK demographic are already in situ. A multi-generational workforce also provides a broader range of skills and experience, increased transferable skills and opportunities for mentoring new recruits. Evidence suggests it leads to improved staff morale, resulting in higher performance.

Despite these tangible benefits, statistically people aged over 50 are the least likely group to be recruited once out of work, making this a ready-made skills pipeline employers should tap into.

Research has also shown that employee participation in training remains relatively steady for workers in their 20s up to their early 50s, but starts to fall away after this point. Productive and talented individuals should be trained and developed regardless of age in order to upskill employees. Older workers may require training to bring them up to date in a modern workplace in order to complement their experience and industry knowledge for a more productive workforce. In fact, the majority of people will need upskilling at some point during their working lives to continue to do their jobs effectively.

The government has recently implemented major reductions to the funding available to the over 25s, which can present an obstacle for employers. However, developing a workforce through training can generate substantial return on investment and the cost is recouped relatively quickly. Training can also be less expensive than recruiting externally because of recruitment and induction costs.

Collaborative training can work, too. For example, at Jigsaw Training we work with MITIE, one of the UK’s largest strategic outsourcing companies, to deliver programmes which enhance existing and new skills. Working jointly with the MITIE senior team we delivered a Training Command Centre Excellence Programme, a dedicated course aimed at raising the skill levels of operators and supervisors within MITIE’s security team as part of a formal development programme.

The 12 module scheme covered the technical theory of how to deal with a diverse set of circumstances and provided real life scenarios which require a number of skills. The programme was introduced following a review of the activities at MiTec, a hi-tech security hub developed by MITIE’s Total Security Management (TSM) business, designed to protect some of the world’s largest companies.

Employees’ analytical, management and people skills were developed and workers reported that the skill sets gained through the training increased their confidence and enabled them to manage situations more effectively. MITIE said the programme will raise standards and engender loyalty within the staff.

Apprenticeships and new government-funded work-based programmes provide a structure to help bridge the skills divide.

However, public and private enterprise must be encouraged to use these programmes – and come up with their own – if we are to start to close the gap and the deficit between the skills available and what business needs for future prosperity.

James Blackhurst, managing director of Jigsaw Training