The number of workers in England who lack the skills needed for their jobs has risen for the first time in seven years, a survey shows.
Despite businesses having their pick of potential staff in the recession, the National Employer Skills Survey for England found that the number of staff with a skills gap has risen to 1.7 million, up 400,000 from 2005. The peak was 2.4m 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 suspected workers' roles had expanded as firms made redundancies, so many people had extra responsibilities 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 such as Train to Gain in England have not made an impression on many employers, the survey reveals.
Employers were complimentary about the quality of school and college leavers, however, with almost three-quarters who had recruited 17- or 18- year-olds saying that most were well or very well prepared for work.
In Scotland, the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils, which represents the needs of employers, has launched a three-year action plan to improve the qualifications and skills of the workforce.
The number of vacancies attributed by employers in Scotland to the difficulty of finding the right skills for the job is about 23,000, according to official figures. This represents only 1 per cent of all employees north of the border.