James Blackhurst

The issue of skills gaps across many growth sectors is starting to become reality. Collaboration including the use of migrant labour has to be the answer, says James Blackhurst, managing director of Jigsaw Training.

The lack of skills in our growing economy is an issue that simply won’t go away. The answer is not as simple and is made up of a combination of initiatives that need to happen quickly.

The root cause of the skills gap is a failing education system that is not producing the correct calibre of applicant with the employability skills required for employers to meet their customers’ demands. Levels of English and maths remain low and in many cases employers are having to commit time and resources to make up the deficiencies.

In the recent past, employers have tended to recruit from outside the UK for different reasons.

The main reason has been to make up for the deficiency in the supply of ready-made skills in the UK and higher level skills which remain in short supply worldwide in the global economy.

Another key reason has been to complement the skills of non-migrants at whatever level that is appropriate simply because there are not enough people with different levels of skills available.

There are also those jobs which are notoriously difficult to fill, usually low-skilled, low-paid and poorly perceived which don’t attract enough Britons.

For all of these reasons, for every British person who fell out of work between 2005-2010, almost two foreign nationals gained employment.

The benefits to employers of using this labour force means they have a supply of tailor-made trained and qualified people with the skills to hit the ground running.

Taking this route of employing foreign nationals can bring a different perspective and approach to a role that has previously been run in a one-dimensional way, with benefits in productivity.

For the lower skilled, lower paid roles, there are reduced labour costs and HR issues which can be attractive to many employers, with many migrants also comfortable with zero-hour contracts which gives the employer increased flexibility.

On the flip side, there are concerns associated with employing immigrants, not least being the impact on non-migrants who cannot find employment in a competitive market.

Depending on the role, the issue of language and culture can also present problems and can require specialist training in itself. And while many migrants are prepared to take roles for which they are over qualified, it can bring frustrations for employee and employer.

The sectors requiring skills are not so precious about whether their workers are British-born or migrants. If they have qualifications already at the relevant level, are prepared to learn and committed with the right attitudes, then they meet the criteria.

Furthermore, the option of using migrants to help solve the skills shortage will not be here for ever more at this scale. Current net immigration is around 200,000 people per year and is something the government is committed to reducing.

Another part of the wider employment matrix is that, unlike migrant workers, the older UK demographic are already in situ. A multi-generational workforce providing 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.

Substantial changes in the way in which the Education Funding Agency (EFA) and Skills Funding Agency (SFA) operate in support of schools, colleges and other providers came into force last August, with a new ‘streamlined’ system which halts funded training for courses at Level 3 and above for people over the age of 23.

This again presents barriers for young migrants and Britons alike who have not aspired to go down the university route either because of the uncertainty of jobs at the end of it, cost or both.

Using the immigrant population in the appropriate way can be part of the answer, especially where they compete in the sectors of most need.

Combined with increased retention of older workers who can pass on their skills as mentors, and the long-term commitment to apprenticeship schemes, it can make a difference.

Employers, the educational institutions and the government, need a more joined-up approach on these issues to ensure we harness the potential of people young and old – whether migrants or British-born nationals – to provide the skills we need as we emerge out of recession.