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Businesses fear higher-level skills shortage, survey reveals

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More than half of businesses fear they will not be able to find enough workers with the higher-level skills they need over the coming years, a new survey reveals.

The annual CBI/Pearson Education and Skills survey, published today, shows the demand for higher-level skills in British industry is set to grow, but crucial sectors including manufacturing and construction will struggle.

The survey of 310 companies, which collectively employ more than a million people, reveals that while two-thirds of the businesses (68 per cent) expect their need for staff with higher level skills to grow, 55 per cent fear they will not be able to get enough workers with the required skills.

Firms are also reporting widespread difficulties in recruiting staff with the necessary science, technology, engineering and maths (stem) skills, with half (52 per cent) experiencing or expecting a shortfall of experienced staff.

Katja Hall, deputy director-general of the CBI, said: “The government has set out its stall to create a high-skilled economy, but firms are facing a skills emergency now which threatens to starve economic growth. Worryingly, it’s those high-growth, high-value sectors with the most potential which are the ones under most pressure.”

She said the apprenticeships levy announced in the Budget last Wednesday was unlikely to deliver the higher quality skills needed. Levies on training already exist in the construction sector, but two-thirds of employers are still reporting skills shortages, she said. “Employers have a critical role in upskilling the workforce, but part of the deal must be for real business control of apprenticeships to meet their needs on the ground," Ms Hall added.

The survey also highlights the desire among businesses for schools to focus on developing “rounded and grounded” young people from primary age, with the majority arguing aptitude and attitude rank ahead of academic qualifications.

Some 73 per cent say they want to see primary schools focus on developing pupils’ literacy and numeracy, as well as communications skills (46 per cent) and other skills that will unlock their learning potential.

In the 14-18 age group, 50 per cent of firms say developing a greater awareness of the world outside the school gates should be a priority.

In addition, three-quarters of firms (77 per cent) are not satisfied with the performance of careers advice in schools and colleges across the UK.

More than a third of firms report some concerns with school leavers’ literacy or use of English (37 per cent), basic numeracy (37 per cent) and nearly half on communication skills (49 per cent).

Close to a third (31 per cent) of firms claim they have had to organise remedial training in core skills for some school or college leavers.

Rod Bristow, president of Pearson’s UK business, told TES: “When we speak to students and parents the single most important issue they tell us is they want their education to result in a better life and career, to better prepare them for work.

“I think what that says is the issue of skills sits at the heart of the education challenge we face in this country. It’s too often seen as a bit of an afterthought or an add-on.”

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL union, called the survey's findings “damning”, and said the government’s “fixation” with tests and exams was not supported by businesses.

“With businesses also strongly arguing the case for young people to have good communication skills and a better knowledge of the world outside school, we hope the government finally starts paying attention,” she said.

While Mr Bristow said he would not describe the survey as “damning, he added: “It does shine a light on the fact that, quite honestly, exams do not determine your success in life. Just focusing on academic learning is not going to be sufficient.”

Last week the government published its productivity plan, which said more colleges could be expected to specialise in individual disciplines and some could even become “institutes of technology” to boost the UK's productivity.

The document said professional and technical education should give people “clear, high-quality routes” into employment, and that “strong institutions” such as National Colleges were needed to deliver the higher-level skills employers need.

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