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How can the UK overcome a national skills shortage? Think local

mike boxall | the guardian | 18 february 2016

Does the UK’s chronic skills shortage mean we are fated to become an also-ran in the global economic race? Three recent reports suggest this is a worryingly real prospect.

We are not producing enough young people with the skills to meet the needs of UK employers, the research finds, and the skills they do have are well below the levels of our international competitors. If that were not enough, even those with advanced skills may soon be made redundant by the influx of smart machines into our workplaces.

The UK Commission on Employment and Skills report catalogues chronic shortages of skilled workers. Meanwhile, those with qualifications are not meeting employers’ expectations, the report says, leading to complaints that applicants from universities and colleges are not being adequately prepared.

This gloomy picture is further darkened by a recent report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It found that England’s teenagers were the most likely to have low levels of literacy among the 23 countries surveyed, and second most likely to have low numeracy. The country is forecast to fall to 28th out of 33 OECD countries for intermediate skills by 2020.

If that were not enough, in January the World Economic Forum predicted the demise of many previously secure careers, such as administration, accountancy and even law. The analysis suggests that the rise of intelligent machines and global disruptions will eliminate a variety of professional roles across almost every business sector. The only defence will be to invest in the human skills that computers cannot replace, such as interpersonal networking and entrepreneurship. 

That is going to be difficult. The government has said that the UK’s national skills weaknesses are “of such long standing and such intractability that only the most radical actions can redress them”.

We need to rethink the way we define workforce skills, and reconstruct the systems through which we develop and employ highly skilled people. That means reforming current vocational education and training systems, which are rooted in the requirements of specific occupations. 

In the future, sustainable careers will require flexible, transferable talents such as complex problem-solving and cross-cultural team working. We need to move away from teaching functional skills that are outdated almost as soon as they are learned and focus on real-world learning experiences.

We have to break down the old divisions between education and working life; between conventional academic achievement and lifelong employability. 

One way to do this is to bring universities and colleges to together with employers and government agencies to form regional alliances that address local skills needs.

We can see this approach in action in the Birmingham Skills Engine. This is an alliance of five universities and 11 colleges, along with employers, public services and civic authorities from across the Midlands. They are collaborating to build the capabilities of the local workforce, to meet the economic and social needs identified through local development strategies. What this means in practice is that these organisations share resources and new approaches to learning; they provide personalised career support to students; they use an online skills exchange that matches talented people to local opportunities.

What is particularly exciting is the way this enables universities to reconnect with their founding mission: to support the education and development of their local communities and to engage with partners in their region.

Another example can be found in Maastricht in Holland. Universities, industry partners and the provincial government have built the Chemelot alliance to meet the skills needs of the local advanced chemicals sector. 

Closer to home, meanwhile, the University of Northampton has fostered the creation of a number of social enterprise partnerships with civic and public service partners to develop local talent.

It is too early to judge whether these kinds of local alliances will be enough to develop the 21st-century skills and talents the UK economy needs. But the pace of change in the global environment means we do not have long to decide whether we are prepared to make these radical changes to our skills systems.

Mike Boxall is a higher education expert at PA Consulting Group

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