Levels of employment are at a record high and unemployment rates at an historic low, with labour-market statistics showing just 1.6 unemployed people per vacancy.
While this is good news on many levels, a growing number of employers report that they are struggling to fill vacancies because of a lack of relevant skills, qualifications and experience among applicants. The latest figures from the government’s Employer Skills Survey show an 8 per cent increase in the number of skill-shortage vacancies compared with 2015. About one-in-eight employers in the survey also reported skill gaps within their existing workforce, while nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) expect that staff will need to develop new skills over the coming year to meet the changing needs of their business.
Perhaps more than ever before, it is critical that adults are engaged in learning, training and developing new skills throughout their lives, to make the most of the opportunities before them.
Barriers to learning
Yet, Learning and Work Institute research, published last week, shows that adult participation in learning and training is at a 20-year low, with persistent inequalities in who gets access. Despite compelling evidence of the benefits of learning on employment and earnings, adults who are less well qualified, those in lower-paid roles, and those most vulnerable to changes in the labour market tend to be less likely to train. Reversing this downward trend will require a better understanding of how we encourage adults to learn, as well as action to address the barriers and challenges that get in the way.
As in previous surveys, work and other time pressures are cited as key factors holding adults back from engaging in learning and training. Other practical issues around caring responsibilities and cost are major issues, too. To find out what works in addressing these barriers, the government’s Flexible Learning Fund and Cost and Outreach Pilots are currently exploring creative ways to make learning more accessible – including flexibilities in timing and location, the use of blended and online provision, support with travel, as well as testing the impact of subsidised course fees.
Unlocking time in a busy week or money from the family budget for adults who are keen to learn will be difficult enough. But it will be an even greater challenge to engage the much larger group of adults (almost two-fifths of our survey respondents) who say that they are not interested in learning, don’t see the relevance of it to their lives or don’t feel confident that they can learn new things. How do we persuade, encourage and support them to engage in learning and develop their skills?
This autumn, we are likely to hear more about the government’s National Retraining Scheme, designed to help people retrain and upskill, as the economy changes. While little is currently known about what the Scheme will look like, our survey shows that it would be a grave mistake to assume that "if we build it, they will come". Instead, considerable thought and creativity will need to be put into how to engage those adults who are most vulnerable to the consequences of economic change, as well as how to help them overcome their barriers to participation.
As part of a wider offer, the effective use of local labour-market information and employer engagement activities will surely have an important role to play in demonstrating the difference that investing in education and training can make to people’s employment and earning prospects. Harnessing the power of people’s motivations and aspirations for their work and wider lives will be essential if we are to ensure that both they and the employers they work for are well placed to thrive. The powerful evidence from these two surveys is a great place to start.
Dr Fiona Aldridge is assistant director at the Learning and Work Institute