A serious Santa skills shortage is threatening the UK's competitive edge in the Magically Delivered Goods (MDG) industry, experts at the Sector Skills Development Agency warned today.
According to the SSDA - the organisation charged with increasing UK productivity through a network of employer-led sector skills councils - the modern Santa is just not up to the job of delivering an estimated 100 million presents on Christmas morning.
The skills crisis may be caused by the new "licence to practise" introduced in the industry this year, some commentators say, which require all Santas to hold an NVQ 3 in sleigh riding, an NVQ 2 in digital map-reading and a certificate in the new vocational qualification in chimneyeering.
"But that is only the tip of the iceberg," says Lesley Giles, head of research at the SSDA.
She adds: "There is also a shortage of elves and reindeer. We are losing out to international competition with too many moving overseas, particularly to Finland, where working conditions better meet their needs."
The research also reveals disturbing skills gaps. Santa has largely failed to adapt to the changing nature of skills needed in the industry. Forty per cent of children now send their Christmas wish-list by email, and Santa's limited information and communications technology skills, combined with poor verbal communication skills, is expected to lead to a drop in customer satisfaction. Indeed, secret recordings made by researchers suggest that Santa, when he does speak, rarely says more than "ho, ho, ho".
Meanwhile, it is reported that concern is growing over whether the MDGs industry is economically significant enough to warrant its own sector skills council.
Industry estimates put the number of elves and reindeer at close to a million, but independent work by the SSDA suggests that the true figure is probably nearer to four.
"While it may be true that there are one million people in the industry, because they only work for one night a year, the number in terms of full-time equivalents is actually in single figures," said a source at the agency who did not want to be named. The director of policy and research at the SSDA, Mike Campbell, has conducted previous studies of the industry in Finland. "The problem is fundamentally one of the new international division of labour generated by a post-Fordist globalisation process, combined with shifting consumer expectations and a failure to adopt high-performance working practices," he said.
"The problem is particularly acute in localities experiencing a low-skills equilibration where latent skills shortages and gaps will exacerbate the problem."
Few who understand this explanation would disagree.
Nonetheless, Santa makes an extraordinary contribution to UK productivity.
The study shows that he generates the highest gross value added (GVA) per hour of any sector of the economy, delivering 100 million presents in just six hours.
Nonetheless, researchers point out that this productivity has not improved since the Second World War, as the sector has failed to adopt modern technologies like the internal combustion engine, headlights (preferring to rely on Rudolph's nose) and, latterly, satellite navigation.
Despite an expansion of course provision for Santa and his little helpers in the run up to Christmas, colleges and private-sector training providers cannot fill their new programmes.
However, one enterprising college has been inundated with applicants, because it offers an e-learning programme which can be accessed from Lapland.
"This offers the kind of flexible, responsive provision we are looking for," said an industry representative. "The course lasts for less than a day and can be bitten off in chocolate-flavoured chunks during meal breaks."
In a further study to be released by the SSDA in the new year, it is predicted that the crisis will ease in future years. A combination of increased provision, aided by a generous funding regime and more attractive working conditions, caused by the shortage pushing up wages, should do the trick. According to the SSDA the real reason lies deeper.
"Fewer children are predicted to contact Santa in Christmas by 2010, as they become better educated, and demographic trends mean there will be simply fewer children around. And, of course, if economic conditions deteriorate there will also be fewer presents to deliver," said a spokesperson.
The research throws up one final interesting insight into Santa and his elves - they do not like sherry and mince pies.
More than 80 per cent said they were heartily sick of the same old snack, with 20 per cent indicating that they would prefer Bollinger and a pannini.
Industry insiders say the disappearance of the sherry and pies may be linked to a regular block-booking at the Rehabilitation and Weight Loss Clinic for Messrs Dasher, Dancer, Prancer et al.
SSDA chief executive Christopher Duff said the study would be repeated annually, and it provided "a much-needed insight into the skills requirements of a much-neglected, but valuable sector of the UK economy".