Close ranks to close the gap

A call for colleges, training agencies and business to get together to plug the skills gaps facing industry was made at an Edinburgh conference last week.

Liz Cameron, director of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, pointed out that, of the pound;24 billion its survey of members estimates is spent on workforce training throughout the UK, 80 per cent goes on addressing skills gaps.

Skills gaps are defined as deficiencies in the workforce, while skills shortages refer to difficulties in recruiting staff.

Ms Cameron said skills gaps were reported to involve 25 per cent of the workforce in science and engineering, 28 per cent in construction, 30 per cent in the chemical, gas and oil industries, 24 per cent in building services and 22 per cent in food and drink.

She urged those involved in skills development and training to involve business at every stage, not just at the end of the process. "We are not just a customer, we have a contribution to make," she said.

But Kish Srinivasan of HMIE wondered what the skills defects were. "In the case of engineering, for example, does it mean people are not getting out of bed in the morning or not communicating well, or does it mean they have weaknesses in maths and science?

"The nature of these gaps is not clear, and we have to understand what they are since that will dictate the nature of our response."

Katie Hutton of Scottish Enterprise said that skills gaps represented only 0.9 per cent of total employment, and that was a consistent finding in surveys carried out by FutureSkills Scotland over the years - surveys which covered 7,000 employers.

It was also a consistent finding, Ms Hutton said, that employers identify the key shortcomings as being in "soft skills" as opposed to technical capability to do a job. The top three, Ms Hutton said, were oral communication, customer handling and problem-solving.

Ray Harris, principal of Edinburgh's Telford College, suggested that employers may be looking for a different set of skills after people are in the job, compared to their requirements when they recruited.

Ms Hutton said skills gaps often reflected lack of experience. "Employers are looking for people with experience, and that can present problems when they are recruiting direct from school."

Alan Ross, chief executive of the Scottish Electrical Charitable Training Trust, said that most gaps arise because of changing work practices, rather than the deficiencies of employees.

Ms Cameron's call for business and education to work more closely together to solve these problems was not challenged, but Mr Srinivasan said there might be a tension between "the needs of Scotland" and more learner-focused education.

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