How ministers, employers and candidates can help solve the UK’s skills problem

Despite some progress for the UK recruitment landscape for those like contractors who navigate it, the problem of skills in hiring is now so significant that it’s paining your engager today, or your engager tomorrow if not, writes Better Hiring Institute chair Keith Rosser, a director at Reed Screening.

The biggest rub for employers today is skills (or the lack thereof)

In fact, a BHI poll of over 100 employers found that half are now reeling from skills shortages, with some 47% affected. That makes skills (or the lack thereof) more of a rub to UK employers in 2023 than staying on top of changing legislation (29%) and improving digital technology in hiring (24%).

On the latter, in May, I gave evidence to 19 MPs on a House of Commons Committee on how Digital Hiring could make UK recruiting the fastest in the world, underpinned by the estimate that in the next five years, some 25 million workers will find jobs digitally and therefore quickly.

What can be done to address UK skills gaps?

I’m personally quietly confident that we can make UK hiring the fastest globally, but that only helps when people’s skills actually meet the requirements of the hiring managers. So, what now?

Well, there are many hiring fads out there today. Values-based hiring, competency-based hiring; hiring for attitudes, and skills-based hiring, to name just a few. We have to ask whether, in reality, hiring is any different now from five years ago, maybe even longer. The CV has dug in and fought hard to retain its place, job adverts are jumbled, job descriptions are non-descriptive, and employer requirements for the same job vary wildly.

And I believe untangling this unwieldy web of where we are with work, and tackling the skills issue which permeates it all, is everyone’s responsibility.

What job have employers got to do on skills shortages?

Employers must be sensible about the skills they require. If it is not essential, drop it. If it can be trained on the job, train it later. Removing unnecessary qualifications and skills requirements is an important start.

Skills taxonomies exist, such as IFATE and SOFIA, but are extremely rarely used. This is a shame because if work-seekers, educationalists, and employers all worked to the same script and knew what skills were needed for what jobs, it would make navigating careers and job finding much more straightforward, not to mention help educationalists build it in to school and college programmes.

Meanwhile, minimising and uniforming skills as pre-requisites for jobs only gets us so far. Job adverts should be standardised, providing simplicity and transparency to work-seekers on benefits, salary/rate ranges, work anywhere/anytime arrangements, and when emphasising what skills are required, have flexibility in how those skills get demonstrated. Employers should support internal staff with upskilling, using available skills taxonomies to ensure the upskilling is relevant and future-focused.

Autumn Statement 2023 may potentially boost workforce returnees

More simplified and transparent job adverts, with this more flexible approach to skills, would also entice more economically inactive people back into the workforce – something our chancellor Jeremy Hunt is keen on and so we can expect to hear more about, potentially, at Autumn Statement 2023.

I agree with him --  and them. The over-55s have said greater flexibility on where and when they work is key, as we know people with caring responsibilities need a ‘work anytime’ approach, while people in part-time work say they would consider more hours if flexibility fitted into their already busy lives.

Such passive candidates are people who may be unused to applying for jobs, and so they should be better supported through the hiring process. But is hiring inclusive and accessible enough?

Fortunately, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Modernising Employment are meeting with peers from the House of Lords to agree proposals to “get more people into jobs,” through improving inclusion and reducing barriers in hiring. Being flexible on how skills are demonstrated, and evidenced in the hiring process is key.

And lastly in this to-do list for employers, one job they could share with government is the promoting of scarce occupations to youngsters, and plugging occupations anticipated to be on the official shortage list to these same young people. Otherwise, how can industries such as construction make itself more of a destination for our next generation?  

Where government must step-up on skills

It is not only employers who have a key role to play in bridging the skills gap.

There is a clear need for the government to overhaul the Apprenticeship Levy to make it more fit for purpose.

Similarly, there are important, tabled reforms to the immigration process that would better support international recruitment, such as issues with sponsorship visas and the asylum process.

John Spellar MP’s Private Members Bill to remove unnecessary qualifications should be supported. Government should promote the skills taxonomies already in existence and advise employers to utilise these while at the same time making sure schools and colleges are aligned to help prepare the new generation.

Government should also be advising workers and the unemployed of the current and future skills requirements, and create innovative partnerships with employers and educational institutions to deliver them.

For those wanting to find work, or those in part-time work wanting to increase their hours, better help should be available to them from officialdom. For young people, skills pathways should be as important as university degrees.  

Then government needs to cut recruitment red tape. That’s not a new recommendation, I know, but it’s right now ripe for trimming where it has no safeguarding or security benefit. Where processes could be carried out more securely through digital routes, or completed post-employment, then the scissors ought to come out.

So Mr Hunt -- your Autumn Statement should focus on empowering employers to upskill through Apprenticeship Levy reform; provide the UK with short-term relief to the skills problem through immigration process-change, and it should standardise skills requirements through existing taxonomies, and via the development of strategic skills-setting for current and future industries -- or both like AI.

What role do workers have in narrowing the skills gap?

Contractors and other workers should get upskilling. This would be easier of course if it were clearer which jobs required what uniform skills!

As a starting point people can assess available job adverts and draw some conclusions on what skills are required for future roles people aspire to. The transferability of some skills is important too. There is much the private sector could learn from civil service hiring. Demonstrating skills and competencies learnt in other industries and in other sectors should be just as relevant.

What was once described as “life-long learning” should be revitalised but evolve into “life-long skills building”. Contractors in particular bring fantastic bundles of experiences, not least in the IT sector, where they can offer an exposure to systems and skillsets that full-time employees don’t typically get.

If the chancellor is looking for an autumnal rabbit out the hat which address skills, perhaps he should be rethinking overall staffing and working models by looking at overall benefits to UK plc? Perhaps he ought to build skills through innovative, flexible work models that sees non-permanent workers make up larger parts of organisations? But in the UK, do we inhibit this due to old-fashioned management and control issues, or are there genuine reasons that mean an unleashing of the contractor staffing model would not work?

Ultimately, workers should be supported to upskill and reskill.

Don’t add to the 'easy chorus'

It’s easy to say the UK’s skills crisis could be solved by the Home Office changing the shortage occupation list to allow UK employers to hire more overseas workers.

It’s easy to say we could resolve the skills issue by reforming the apprenticeship levy or reforming immigration policy.

It’s easy to say schools should do better to produce the new generation of workers to meet the skills requirements of today and tomorrow.

It’s easy to say it’s just an issue for employers.

The reality is it is everyone’s job, there is no single fix, and we need a revolution in hiring if we have any chance of making a significant impact on this strategic issue.       

Lastly, my own contribution…

For my part, the BHI and our plan to make “UK hiring the fastest globally” has now been submitted by MPs to four ministers. It outlines ways to cut recruitment red tape, including binning the bizarre rules like those within NHS frameworks which insist contractors and agency staff have their ‘right to work’ assessed in person, even though the Home Office launched a faster, safer method of digital right to work checks nearly a whole year ago. The plan also emphasises the role which further digital innovation can have to speed up hiring, such as the use of Open Banking, and HMRC data to replace references. So there you have it; it's not just government, employers and candidates who can help tackle the UK skills deficit; it’s the taxman as well.

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Written by Keith Rosser

Keith Rosser is a labour market expert with almost 20 years working in hiring. Currently a Group Director at Reed, the UK's largest family-owned recruitment business, and Chair of 2 joint UK government and industry bodies: the Better Hiring Institute and JobsAware.
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