HR Magazine recently drew attention to a joint report by Ipsos MORI and Communications Management into the attitude of MPs towards education policy. The report is revealing for a number of reasons, but amongst the many interesting details uncovered by the research were the following statistics:
- 40% of MPs believe employers should be given more influence over how universities are run and programmes are taught
- 49% of MPs questioned said that the skills shortage is the most important issue facing British business and industry today
In the report’s Executive Summary and Implications, the authors make the following observation:
“Politicians see a disconnect between the people that educational establishments produce and what the economy wants… This aligns with MPs’ opinions on the most important issues facing British business and industry today; almost half (49%) of all MPs give the skills shortage as the most important issue. As a result MPs would like to see a closer link between business and education providers to ensure programmes are tailored to meet employment needs.”
There is, then, clearly a high awareness in Westminster of a serious disjoint between the education system and the needs of employers and businesses, and no doubt we will see a number of solutions proposed in the near future. However, we believe that before such suggestions are made, it is crucial that we first identify what the underlying problem really is.
The skills shortage identified by 49% of MPs questioned in the survey is what is commonly called the “Skills Gap”. But it is important to note that the Skills Gap is not really the problem at all, but is in fact a symptom of a more fundamental problem. The real issue is not so much a lack of skills, but rather a lack of understanding of the needs of employers. In other words, the disjoint between the education system and the needs of employers and businesses is basically the result of an “Information Gap”, rather than a “Skills Gap,” as such.
As the education sector has not traditionally been seen as a demand-responsive industry, we can perhaps see this clearer by putting the problem in the context of another industry. For example, if you were a supplier of meat to a restaurant in your town, what would be the most important thing you would need to know in order to meet (no pun intended) their demand? Quite simply, you would need to find out what type of meat they needed. But let’s say that you didn’t find this information out, and went ahead and supplied them with loads of beef, only to find that they had taken beef off the menu and replaced it with several chicken dishes. No-one would identify the problem as being fundamentally a “Chicken Gap”. Rather the problem would clearly be seen as a problem of information and comunication, or rather lack of it, and the undersupply of chicken a symptom of this bigger failure.
Likewise with the mismatch between education providers and employers. What is called a Skills Gap is in reality a lack of information and understanding on behalf of the suppliers – colleges and universities – about the needs of local and regional business.
Unfortunately, whenever this issue arises, there is often a tendency to assume that the skills we need more of are in certain niche industries, which by and large tend to be in the hi-tech and “cool” sectors. So for example, HR Magazine mentioned the government’s recent announcement that they intend to rollout degree-level apprenticeships more widely, in sectors such as aerospace engineering and the nuclear sector. Now it may be that there are indeed big skills needs in these industries, but before running ahead of ourselves we need to ask the following questions:
- Has the demand for these industries been established, or has it just been assumed?
- Providing apprenticeships in aerospace engineering and the nuclear sector is all very well in theory, but do we know where the occupations are within those industries?
- Is the demand for apprenticeships in aerospace engineering and the nuclear sector applicable across the country, or do different regions have vastly different demands?
Hopefully you will begin to see what we are getting at here. It can be tempting to have a knee-jerk reaction to the “Skills Gap” and to assume that we need more skills in this industry or that industry without asking the kinds of questions asked above. But if we are not asking these sorts of questions, we could easily end up with an even bigger gap than before, where young people are training for jobs that aren’t actually going to be there when they graduate, and employers in certain industries are still not able to find workers with the skills they need because nobody realised that the sector was likely to experience growth.
So how do we bridge the gap? Well, if lack of information is the problem, then good information must form at least part of the answer. This is where Labour Market Information (LMI) comes into the picture. Good LMI details the long term trends in industries and occupations, as well as giving projected trends for the coming years. Not only this, but it can begin to uncover where the skills needs are likely to be in any given industry, right down to regional, county and even local authority level. In short, good LMI can answer the sorts of questions mentioned above, and so has the potential to show both colleges and universities what the skills needs of businesses in their area are likely to be over the next few years. In turn, this can enable them to begin to shape a curriculum and apprenticeship schemes in accordance with the needs identified by the data.
If MPs are serious about addressing the problem they have identified, and if colleges and universities are also serious about tackling the issue, the place to begin is not proposing solutions based on preconceived and possibly incorrect assumptions about where the skills shortages are. Rather, our starting point should be to first address the Information Gap – using local and regional LMI to identify where the skills needs of businesses across all sectors really are, for each specific geography. Once we have done this, we can then move on to suggesting workable solutions for meeting the skills shortages we have correctly identified.
For more information on how LMI can help close the Information Gap, contact Andy Durman at firstname.lastname@example.org