Skip to main content

Underemployment: how the ‘middle skills’ gap is holding learners back

The chief executive of the Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation argues that learners' skills and employers' needs must be better matched

News article image

This is an edited version of an article in the 9 October edition of TES. To read the full article, subscribe to TES 

In the second quarter of 2015, 1.85 million people in the UK were out of work. Nearly half (47 per cent) were aged 18-24. In fact, more than one young person in seven was not in education, employment or training (Neet). Meanwhile, employers reported more than 730,000 unfilled vacancies.

This problem is not unique to the UK. In the US, 14 million people are unemployed at the same time as 3.5 million positions remain unfilled. In Canada, 1.3 million aren’t working while 350,000 positions are vacant.

The unemployment problem for young people is exacerbated by underemployment. Many university graduates find themselves in jobs for which three or more years of advanced learning is unnecessary. In the UK, 44 per cent of graduates from post-secondary institutions within the past five years have ended up in that position, according to the Office for National Statistics. We have people without jobs – and jobs without people.

This situation is the result of too few young people coming out of school with the skills and experience employers need. This is the “skills gap”. And as Lord Baker, chair of the Edge Foundation, has said, it will only worsen as our ageing population of skilled workers marches off to retirement, taking technical know-how with them. Meanwhile, many unskilled young people will remain on the sidelines.

The skills gap is greatest in the “middle skilled” labour category, which includes machinists, electricians, plumbers, medical and computer technicians, chefs, industrial robot programmers. These form the backbone of a healthy, vibrant economy. Most middle skills can be developed with two or more years of post-secondary vocational education coupled with on-the-job training. Those who master middle skills are generally well-paid. Yet businesses can’t find enough of them.

This is what drove me to write Job U: how to find wealth and success by developing the skills companies actually need. My experiences in Australia, North America and here have taught me that there are many feasible solutions that we can use to close the skills gap. It’s just that many have – so far – failed to capture the public imagination.

In terms of labour demand, the middle skills can no longer be overlooked. Educators, policymakers and businesses must recognise the vast spectrum of opportunities offered by middle-skill jobs and respond with effective policies and programmes.

The UK needs to pay greater attention to technical, vocational and professional education. We have long looked to universities to drive up skills and knowledge in the future workforce. It has become clear, however, that other forms of learning merit equal if not greater attention today: career and technical high schools, foundation degrees, apprenticeship programmes and work-based training for adults. Each provides a proven pathway to a valued skill and a productive working life. And each can help us close the skills gap.

Want to keep up with the latest education news and opinion? Follow TES on Twitter and like TES on Facebook

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you