Filling the Skills Gap: A view from the UK

Posted by Lauren Hancox

Filling the Skills Gap: A view from the UK


The skills gap in the UK is back in the spotlight following the triggering of Article 50 and ambitious net migration targets. Tribal Group has taken a look at the problem, the initiatives and what can be done.

What is the problem?

The skills gap in the UK is costing the country billions of pounds every year. It threatens the future of our industries - from digital technologies to the engineering sector - the UK is falling behind its global competitors.

The Hays – Global Skills Index (2016) found the skills gap has worsened by 8% over the past five years and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (2017) claimed that 'One in every four vacancies are proving hard to fill because of a shortage of candidates with the right skills. The OCED Report (2016) also found that English teenagers aged 16 to 19 rank 22nd in a list of 23 developed nations for numeracy skills.

To be competitive, you've got to be 'in it to win it', and almost 12% of young people aged 16-24 in the UK aren't 'in it' at all; they're classed as Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET).  As tomorrow's employees, managers and leaders, it might be tough to attract and retain skilled employees in the future, without a pool of young people ready to take the jobs that the UK economy needs. Thus, we face a spiralling challenge to increase the productivity and innovation capability that's critical for growth in the UK.

So what is the UK doing about it?

The UK Government has several initiatives to tackle the skills gap, including:

  • The launch of the Institute for Apprenticeships (April 2017) An independent institute chaired by Anthony Jenkins alongside other leading business figures, supporting employers in reviewing and challenging apprenticeship standards and assessments.
  • High-quality apprenticeships are also an important part of the government’s Plan for Britain following Britain’s exit from the European Union. The plan seeks to create a home-grown workforce to address the skills shortages facing industry.
  • Apprenticeship Levy (April 2017) The Government will double annual investment in apprenticeships to £2.5 billion by 2019/2020. The levy will also be charged on employers’ paybills at a rate of 0.5%, with each employer then receiving a £15,000 allowance to fund new apprenticeships and skills training. The government pledges to create 3 million apprenticeships by 2020 and is planning to work with industry to create more than 30,000 apprenticeships in the rail and road sector.
  • 2010-15 Government Policy: Science and Engineering – Aims to encourage interest in STEM subjects among the general public, with the introduction of;
    • National Science and Engineering Week
    • Funding of independent national academies
    • Encouraged/funding of STEM subjects in schools.
  • YourLife (2014-17) – A government-funded campaign to increase the numbers of young people (post-16) studying STEM subjects by 50% by the end of 2017.
  • STEMNET – Funded by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and the Department for Education, inspiring young people to take an interest in STEM subjects.

A view from the employer

We spoke to one Tribal client, Leonardo Helicopters, to see what they thought.  Leonardo has begun broadening who they take on and widening the schemes they can offer, to ensure they can cover all ages and demographics to help fill the skills gap.

Steve Palmer, Head of Education and Training at Leonardo Helicopters said

“We are trying to do outreach work to address the national shortage of skills in engineering apprenticeships and we’re working with national STEM initiatives but there’s still an awful lot to do. We’re making a real effort to be as diverse as possible because we want to tap into a richer more diverse workforce for the future and attract a broad cross section of applicants.” 

Tom Spencer, a 3rd Year Apprentice at Leonardo said

To be a great engineering apprentice you need to have hand skills and be practically minded, but passion is the main thing. For a long time, there’s been a push on going to University. A lot of people who would have been suitable for an apprenticeship would have probably been pushed down a non-vocational route. It’s great now to see an active push in apprenticeships as well.

When thinking about engineering in particular, it's no wonder there's a shortage of willing and able apprentices waiting in the wings when only one in ten UK students leave secondary school with an A-Level in Maths and Physics. Edwina Dunn is the Chief Executive of Starcount and Chair of Your Life; and has estimated that the STEM worker shortfall will be close to 40,000 each year. Dunn attributes a widespread societal lack of information and knowledge, an uninspiring curriculum and the misperception that Maths and Science subjects are only for the "ultra-bright"; as reasons, as to why so few of our secondary school pupils are disengaged with the STEM subjects.

Research by Computer Weekly suggests that female tech professionals are more likely to have chosen Maths as their route into a tech career. Girls are taught Maths and Science along with boys from an early age and have every chance to choose a technology focus if they wanted. But the Science, Maths and Engineering clubs at schools are still predominantly made up of boys, not girls. We asked Debbie Morgan, Director for Primary at the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM) for her thoughts on this;

It is an ever-changing picture. Culturally there has been a perception that girls don’t do Maths and timetabling in structure, with school having influence, but this is changing and there are now more girls taking Maths qualifications. Structure and culture of teaching often favours boys more – typically they are more competitive and quicker with answers. There is some research that says that girls prefer certain conditions in learning Maths – they like to go slower in reasoning things through and be neater, and typically don’t fit well in a context which favours quick answers, so they therefore think they are not good at Maths.” 

What else can be done?

Challenging perceptions of which subjects are suited to which characteristics is a start… but only if curriculums are made exciting, and the end prospects of a future learning path and career outcome are made clear at a young age.  Recognising that not all paths in education begin at point A and end with a qualification at point B and that a student's potential, learning aims, learning styles etc. will have an impact on their overall success; is crucial.

The number of apprenticeship roles will help employers upskill their workforce and boost UK productivity, but they cannot be seen to be the solution to every skills problem in the UK. Tangible results and quality outcomes need to be the agenda of the day. Targeting quality should focus providers to think about the individual behind the qualification.  Inspiring young people to embrace a post-16 learning route in something they actually enjoy and feel passionate about, will be key. 

Tribal has a number of products and services that aim to support learning providers and schools with the improvement of their STEM provision, including:

  • Quality Mark - an award that demonstrates commitment to the improvement of English and maths functional skills
  • Maytas - a learner management tool to help track, fund and monitor apprenticeship delivery
  • School reviews and evaluations - helping schools to review and take ownership of action planning and monitoring, and building the capacity of leaders to ensure continuous school improvement.

…and much more.

It's important that pupils and learners are guided onto learning paths suited to their passions if they are to fulfil their potential - whether that’s an apprenticeship, an academic higher education route or otherwise, inspiring young people to learn will inevitably fill our skills gaps, both now and in the future; and Tribal's mission is to empower educators to do just that. 

See how we have empowered Leonardo Helicopters to support their education and focus on what they do best:




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