The number of workers without the skills they need for their jobs has risen for the first time in seven years, a survey of employers reveals.
Despite businesses having their pick of potential staff in the recession, the National Employers Skills Survey found that the number of staff with a skills gap has risen to 1.7 million, up 400,000 from 2005. The peak was 2.4 million in 2003.
Nearly one in five of the 80,000 employers surveyed by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) said they had some staff who were not fully proficient.
Mark Spilsbury, chief economist at UKCES, said there were two possible causes for the rise. He said he suspected that workers' roles had expanded as companies made redundancies, so many people had extra responsibilities that they were not trained for.
But he said companies may also be heeding the call to move into more productive, high skilled industries, and that higher demand was driving the skills gap.
Mr Spilsbury said: "We're driving up demand for skills over time. We need more high-quality jobs and high-skilled labour. If people start to do that and move up the value chain then it's going to mean demanding more from the workforce."
The increase represents a larger potential market for colleges and training providers, especially as most skills gaps are in core competencies that are likely to require vocational education. Among the industries most likely to have skills gaps are hotels and catering, manufacturing, retail and wholesale, and health and social work.
Businesses have continued to invest in skills in the recession, with more than two-thirds offering training in the past year, although they are making savings on the number of staff trained and the time spent training them.
Their spending has reduced in real terms, with a fall of about 5 per cent after factoring in inflation, to pound;39 billion.
Nigel Fletcher, skills policy adviser for the manufacturers' organisation EEF, said: "There is still a lot of work to do in removing the barriers and complexity which prevent many businesses from accessing the right training support, and this needs to be prioritised if we are to maximise the skills we need for the recovery."
With the exception of apprenticeships, which are widely recognised, government training initiatives have not made an impression on many employers, the survey reveals.
Train to Gain is known to 61 per cent of employers and used by 11 per cent, but the figures are heavily weighted towards large companies, rather than the small businesses it was originally intended to help.
Only 27 per cent are aware of the Skills Pledge, a voluntary undertaking to train staff, and National Skills Academies were known to just 36 per cent of businesses.
Employers were complimentary about the quality of school and college leavers, however, saying most were well prepared.