Practical magic: addressing the yawning gap in vocational skills

Successive reports show that UK bosses are suffering because of a yawning gap in vocational skills. journalists recently took part in a web chat on the issue.

A shortage of skilled workers in areas like IT, languages and ‘tradesman’ jobs are affecting UK businesses in two ways. One is that firms literally ‘can’t get the staff’, and the other is that they must wait in line for essential services, like property repairs and technical support.

Below are selected questions taken from a recent web chat involving journalists, school leavers and employers. Giving the answers are Adam Shaw, a leading commentator from TV’s Working Lunch programme, and Jan Walsh representing Foundation Degrees.

Q: “Do you think vocational qualifications should be given more prestige?”

Shaw: It’s been a long-term trend, to look down at our noses at vocational qualifications in favour of academic ones and that is part of the reason why we are in a situation where we have a work force without the appropriate skills. That situation has got to change.

Q: “Should educators focus more on work skills than purely academic subjects?”

Shaw: I think there is room for both. I think the problem is at the moment we have turned our back on the practical in favour of the academic and when you need something doing you need someone who can do it rather than philosophise about it.

Q: “Do you think it is the fault of the employer if their employees don’t have relevant skills – surely if they invested in training then they would receive the benefit?”

Walsh: I don’t think you can entirely blame the employers, I think this should be a joint operation between schools offering more encouragement to young people to think about skills training, employers putting more effort and money into training for their business and also employees themselves realising that they can enhance their own value in a work place if they have relevant skills.

Q: “I feel that vocational degrees are very important for increasing skills in workplaces. How can I go about encouraging my boss to fund them?”

Shaw: You don’t say how big your firm is and obviously smaller firms find it more difficult to fund training. But if you do feel that your firm can afford to fund some training why not try and talk to other staff who are in the same position as you and perhaps approach the boss as a group.

Q: “I read that there is a big shortage of skilled workers such as plumbers, electricians etc – is that true and where can you train into a profession like this?”

Walsh: Anyone who has ever called a plumber knows that there are not enough well qualified people and that they can charge high prices for what they do. So I think that you are absolutely right to consider a profession like that.

I can’t promise that there is Foundation Degree course in your locality but I would certainly try the website and I would also try asking via your local technical college or even your local library would be able to give you a contact.

Q:”Which industries do you think are most affected by the skills shortage?”

Walsh: In [a recent] survey, we were quite surprised to find that firms in the Art & Design sector were most likely to complain about a skills shortage. However, we do know that this is a problem that affects virtually all industry.

Shaw: There is a programme called “Can’t Cook, Won’t cook” I think we have become a nation of can’t do, won’t do. So, I agree with Jan it’s an issue which affects all parts of the economy.

Q: “Why has vocational training become so popular?”

Walsh: If you talk to businesses they will tell you it hasn’t become popular enough.

Q: “If I wanted to do a foundation degree part time while still working how many hours a week would I need?”

Walsh: That does depend on the course, but basically a Foundation Degree is a two-year course and some of them have the option to carry on for a third year in order to convert it into an honours degree.

Q: “How many employers genuinely will pay for both the time and the training costs of their employees? Isn’t still the mentality that if you don’t have the skills already you won’t get the job?”

Walsh: The survey showed that two-thirds of firms were now willing to fund training to some extent within their business obviously there are still plenty of firms around who expect you to arrive at their door with all the necessary skills…

Shaw: That is essentially a short-term view. A company that doesn’t want to invest in its work force is a company that is not investing in the future. Sensible employers have a balanced attitude and require some skills to start with but also realise they have got to help their staff develop the skills that the employer themselves demands.

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