More than one in five current job vacancies is due to an absence of enough skilled applicants for the job, according to the recent Employer Skills Survey from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES). As I approach retirement and look back at 27 years in training and education with the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT), my view is that it’s time for an overhaul of the UK qualifications system to more closely align the training offered with what employers need – but it’s a case of give and take, and employers have to provide more help to new recruits too.
Working in a competitive global market, and particularly in our knowledge-based economy, the skills shortages highlighted by UKCES should be of great concern. If training and education providers are not meeting the needs of employers, standards could drop. If we are not producing workers who fit the needs of the market, we risk damage to the UK economy as a result. There has to be correlation between the needs of employers, training providers and the education sector so that education and employability are intertwined.
To create a highly-skilled economy and remain competitive in the modern world, industry and employers must be empowered to take the lead when it comes to skill development. Crucially, they understand the real skills needs at the sharp end. Despite politicians talking about putting employers in the driving seat when it comes to skills policy, there is a continuing disconnect between the interests of the education and skills establishment, and the needs of employers.
Too often, AAT – and other bodies like us – have had to reshape qualifications and training to meet the latest fad of Government, or arbitrary requirements of regulators, at considerable cost and with no discernible benefit to employers or learners. This includes adapting to NVQs, then the QCF and now FE performance tables and the Specification for Apprenticeship Standards in England (SASE). While the performance of schools is judged on the levels of academic achievement of pupils and the numbers going on to university, and the performance of further and higher education institutions is still similarly test-score focused, there is little to incentivise educators to properly equip students for the world of work and to meet employers’ needs.
But it’s not all about changing the attitudes of education providers and qualification bodies – employers have to learn to be more flexible as well. Young people can offer a huge amount to a workplace if they are nurtured in the right way. As an employer myself, I sympathise with the desire for new recruits to ‘hit the ground running’, but it’s just not realistic with the education system and employer needs out of synch. AAT’s members are a great example of how this works in practice; employers in the financial sector expect to train young people to become professionals, and are proactive about doing this. There’s nothing holding back other sectors in doing the same. Within AAT itself, I’ve been able to coach people who started off in admin roles to go on to senior management positions, with the right training, support and opportunities.
Employers need to be more patient with those brand new to the world of work, and be prepared to nurture their latent talents and skills. Young recruits may be raw at first, but improve quickly with a little mentoring and by simply being in a work environment. Employers will often find that a younger recruit can bring fresh perspective to issues – not just understanding technology and social media better than an older worker might, but in having a different background and being less ingrained in workplace culture. Likewise, recruiting shouldn’t just be a box-ticking exercise, and being open-minded can pay off – giving a chance to a young person who might have come from a more challenging background could result in considerable gratitude and loyalty, meaning that your business, not a competitor, reaps the benefits of their training.
It seems that, perhaps frustrated with the status quo, employers are taking matters into their own hands. AAT’s own research, involving a range of small, medium and large employers, showed they are shunning traditional school qualifications and placing more value on skills. Nearly nine in 10 employers say they focus on candidates’ skills, not qualifications, as the main factor in hiring decisions, and nearly half (44%) expect to increase in-house learning to fill perceived gaps in the school curriculum. Employers also want to be more involved in qualification development, the research showed. More than a third (37%) believe that employers should be heavily involved in qualification development. Failings in the current system mean that, at present, 80% of employer training takes place outside of Government frameworks. The result is that organisations like ours are bending over backwards to align qualifications with frameworks that many employers then don’t end up using. We need more action from employers, working alongside education and training providers, to deliver the training that people need to be successful in the workplace.
What do the UKCES figures mean for this situation? For me, there should be an impetus for all the parties involved to start bringing in changes that I’ve campaigned for throughout my career. The responsibility lies with Government, employers and the sector – we all know and acknowledge the system could work better. I hope these new figures, and the shadow they cast over how well equipped UK businesses are to capitalise on this long-awaited economic upturn, can spur people into action.
After 27 years at AAT, I can say that we have come a long way in delivering high-quality qualifications. But there is still a huge opportunity for employers and employees to benefit from greater collaboration and create a more highly-skilled workforce in the UK.
Jane Scott Paul OBE is retiring as CEO of AAT next month after 17 years in the role.