Mind the Skills Gap - by Sharron Robbie, DCTPN

12 Sep 2016

You hear the term skills gap a lot nowadays, but what exactly does it mean? In simple terms, it can be seen as the mismatch between the needs of an employer / industry for skilled talent and the skills possessed by the available workforce. However, there is a lack of agreement, in some areas, over which skills are in short supply; for example, the IT sector is often quoted as experiencing skills gaps, which could prevent growth and productivity, but when we look at where the key shortages are they appear in Project Management and Change Management – not IT specific skills.

So how and why has this disconnect come about, and what is the impact of it on businesses within Devon and Cornwall, and on the wider UK PLC economy?

If we look back at how we used to work in the 1960s, 70s, and even into the 1980s individuals would enter a profession, and in the main would stay with the employer they started their career with; times have now changed dramatically with the world of work a much more fluid place, along with the demise of a ‘job for life’.

Nowadays individuals are more likely to undertake a number of jobs with different employers, a statistic from a 2014 survey showed that just 1.5% of new workers are likely to have just one job during their working life and that the average worker will have nine jobs, one complete career change, and will move jobs every five years over the course of their working life.

So how has this change impacted on skills? Traditionally employers would recruit graduates and then train them to do a particular job, which they would then remain in over the course of their working life. Not so today, with employers seeking ‘job ready’ candidates for their vacancies. Employers are seeking individuals who can ‘hit the ground running’, who can quickly add value to their ‘bottom line’.

Employers are seeing a more transient, mobile and fluid workforce and to that end have perhaps reduced their investment in training, as they see this as providing training for their competitors when their staff move into new roles with the company down the road.

Another factor which should be considered is the rise in the number of individuals going on to study at university, rather than taking the traditional vocational route. In general terms we could say that graduates ‘know more’, but ‘can do less’ – they have fewer, or no, workplace skills than an individual who has followed a vocational pathway.

This move away from work-based learning, via the Apprenticeship route, is an issue the Government is trying to rectify, and can be seen by the ambitious target they have set for 3m apprentices by 2020. There is real work to be done in order to realise a figure anywhere near this, in particular with changing the perception of Apprenticeships with young people and their key influencers, and ensuring we have robust, impartial careers education, information, advice and guidance across all our schools, so that young people are truly made aware of the job opportunities available to them.

If we really want to prevent skills shortages, and support the growth of our local and regional economies we need to encourage take up of vocational training, especially in those areas where skilled labour is in short supply – those of us working within the business community and with links to colleagues in economic development and the like, understand and recognise the areas of potential growth for the cities and towns here in the South West; marine, big data, nuclear, and STEM based subjects to name a few.

A poll (June 2016) by Interserve highlights just how much work still needs to be done - according to the results, which were shared by TES in August, just 7% of young people surveyed were interested in taking up an Apprenticeship, more worryingly is the fact that only a quarter of the parents surveyed (27%) thought an Apprenticeship the most appropriate route for their child when considering their future career. It would appear that there is a major need to communicate strong, positive messaging about the benefits of taking a vocational pathway in order for us to turn the tide.

The lack of skills in a region or sector has major implications on growth, development and economic stability – without a pool of work-ready, skilled labour in the areas required by employers we will see a reduction in inward investment, poor productivity, lack of competition and little drive to compete.

The solution to real-time or forecasted skills gaps is for greater partnership working and collaboration between employers and training providers. With a shared agenda, industry and education can design and deliver programmes of training which are relevant, appropriate and fulfil market needs.

Training providers, come in many guises; from independent training providers, to further education colleges, through to higher education institutes. All, however, offer the opportunity for employers to access training and skills for their existing workforce at a range of levels, and with the advent of Degree Level Apprenticeships, we can now see a clearly defined career pathway for those who opt to take a vocational work-based learning pathway.

Employers may wrongly assume that their local independent training provider, FE College or university cannot help them close their particular skills gap. However, training providers are incentivised to support employers, to find a solution to a business problem, and often recruit suitable candidates to fill the vacancy. The days of training providers offering supply driven provision are over – providers have had to become commercially aware, to become demand-led organisations in order to ensure that they are providing the quality training, which is being demanded by the market.

The Devon and Cornwall Training Provider Network represents over 50 training providers across both counties and includes independent training providers, further education colleges, and universities. The Network helps to facilitate partnership and collaborative working, all of which are required in order to meet the ever evolving skills needs of our region.

The Network represents the training provider sector via engagement with a range of key strategic groups in Devon and Cornwall, including, amongst others, local authority and LEP-led employment skills boards, business advisory boards, careers advisory boards, and a number of tasks and finish working groups, all of which enable the skills and training agenda to be part of any proposed regional developments or initiatives.

Our members have a wealth of expertise in training, assessment, and most importantly, in accessing funding to support businesses. As we enter this current period of change with regards to how Apprenticeships are funded and delivered via the Apprenticeship Reforms and Employer Levy, and with the publication of the Post- 16 Skills Plan, it is critically important that employers engage with their colleges and independent training providers, in order to benefit from their expertise. 

With Government placing more control in the hands of employers via the Apprenticeship Reforms there is real opportunity for a more integrated approach to working together to reduce skills gaps / shortages by developing, strong, sustainable partnerships between those that require the skills, employers, and those that deliver them, the training providers.

Training providers have become more flexible and responsive to the changing demands of the market and are able to bespoke training to meet specific needs. A good example of employer and provider cooperation to address a skills deficit is evident in East Devon.

A skills gap was identified by a group of employers engaged with the Exeter and Heart of Devon Employment Skills Group – businesses were finding it difficult, if not impossible, to recruit into Digital Marketing roles where accredited training was part of the support – working with Exeter College the employers have devised and designed an enhanced Apprenticeship, which meets their specific needs. Not only that, the employers are also involved in delivering some aspects of the training, and providing job rotations amongst themselves making this Apprenticeship truly employer-led.

September 2016 will see 20 businesses in Exeter offering Apprenticeships in Digital Marketing, the Apprenticeship will span levels 2, 3 and 4 and will provide a long-term solution to the identified needs of the businesses involved. Its development and implementation removes the skills gap, supports businesses in accessing the real skills they need and opens up job opportunities for young people who will remain integral to that organisation for years to come, negating the skills gap that inertia would have created.

Another similar example is the collaboration between Plymouth-based independent training provider GHQ Training and a national care company. They have successfully worked together to develop and launch a programme of training, which is centred around supporting children and young people with special needs. The employer had searched for some time to find a local provider who could work with them on producing a programme which would reduce the skills gaps they were experiencing in this highly specialised field.

The programme launched in May of this year, and currently, has 16 learners across Devon – the programme is expanding and will support and enhance Children and Young People’s Workforce training in the county. The training model developed by GHQ for the employer is enjoying early success with clear indicators that the skills gap experienced by the employer is now reduced.

The opportunity to work with training providers to produce positive results is easy to achieve – training providers all have specialist commercial expertise within their teams and are keen to work with employers to develop work-based provision, from entry level through to higher level skills. Independent providers are particularly adept at responding to changing market needs, providing high quality and cost-effective training to employers. In fact, independent providers are a great route for employers to collaborate on the design of bespoke provision to meet specific skills needs.

Finally, if we want to drive up productivity, increase the amount of inward investment and grasp the opportunities that devolution and Brexit will bring, we need to ensure that the education and business sectors are not just talking together, but are actively working together to develop and deliver skills training which meets, absolutely, the market needs of the South West. In addition, we need to ensure that all partners across the business community, from the LEP to the Chambers of Commerce, to the local authorities, through to the FSB, and the business networking and lobbying groups are working together to agree strategies, share data, discuss ideas and support implementation. 

If you would like to find out more, or would like to be put in touch with an independent training provider, college or university to help support your business with its training and skills needs please contact me at: 


Sharron Robbie

Managing Director

Devon & Cornwall Training Provider Network Ltd

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