Many training and enterprise councils have reported a 50 per cent increase in problems. The worst report is from the West of England where a detailed survey of 800 employers showed the number of problems had doubled in 12 months.
The TEC surveys underline concerns expressed following research from the Basic Skills Agency (BSA) last week which showed that Britain was underachieving internationally in a range of core skills, with a particularly poor showing in numeracy ( page 11).
One research exercise by the BSA followed a sample of adults from the National Child Development Study born in 1958. One-in-four 37-year-olds had very low numeracy skills which would make it difficult to complete everyday tasks.
An employer survey by the Western Training and Enterprise Council, which covers Bristol, Bath, Somerset and Gloucestershire, found that more than a quarter of firms could not fill skills gaps. This was at a time when 31, 000 people were unemployed in the area. In 1995 only 12 per cent of employers - half the 1996 figure - had a similar problem.
Data for the survey was gathered from telephone interviews with senior managers who employ one in seven of the area's total workforce.
The employers said the lack of job-related skills was the main reason for the vacancies being unfilled, but they added that some applicants were unmotivated and showed poor attitude. The hardest to fill vacancies were for motor mechanics, care assistants, clerks, technical sales representatives, HGV drivers and cleaners.
A major area of concern is in hi-tech industries such as electronics, telecommunications and information technology. Some 12 out of 14 hi-tech employers have experienced recruitment problems within the past two years.
A spokeswoman said: "Recruitment difficulties in graduate level electronics staff is a real problem and could constrain the growth of the buoyant hi-tech sector in the Avon area."
Employers are responding by recruiting more widely and improving salary levels but the main solution in the medium to long term is increasing training, the survey found. The problem of low skill levels is identified by many managers across a wide spectrum, particularly in larger firms and in manufacturing. Key areas are communications, management, customer care, personal skills, information technology and sales.
Nevertheless, despite recognising that skill levels need to improve, only 20 per cent of employers saw training staff as vital.
Some 24 per cent said a staff training programme was part of their established routine. The overwhelming majority of employers preferred training staff on- the-job, with off-the-job training declining markedly for the first time in four years.
The survey found that work experience is one of the keys to improving basic skills and attitudes among young people entering the labour market. Among the employers surveyed, around 13 per cent of the workforce was under the age of 25.