From education to employment

Ensuring a competitive workforce: Leveraging accessible and flexible learning in a digital age

Mike Thompson, Chief Executive, Sustain HR Limited

Bridging the skills gap

I was fortunate enough to join David Willett of the Open University (OU) on a radio day recently where we discussed the skills gap that exists in the UK economy and what this means for employers and workers alike.

The worrying finding of recent research undertaken by the OU is that there is a notable gap in the general public’s knowledge surrounding skills gaps in the UK, with a fifth (20%) claiming to be unaware of any skills gaps at all.

More than three in five senior business leaders (62%) admit there is a skills shortage in their workplace. Yet, the poll suggests that many UK employees are unaware of what they can do to ‘upskill’ themselves at work (25%), and over a fifth (22%) say they don’t know what skills future jobs will require of them.

So, whilst employment levels in the UK have been increasing over the past few years it seems workers in many industries may be lacking vital skills necessary to perform well even in their current roles, with three quarters (75%) of those admitting they are unsure what skills their employers require of them.

Equipping Employees With Skills

The cost to employers is huge with an annual spend in excess of £6 billion a year on filling skills gaps in their organisations including spend on contractors and salary premiums to acquire scarce skills but the polling results suggest they are not equipping their employees with the skills needed to succeed in their roles.

A third (33%) of people surveyed said it was either very, or likely they would change career or sector in the next five years. Despite this, many people have little knowledge of which sectors are struggling with recruitment.

For example, over half of those surveyed (57%) are unaware of the struggles the healthcare industry is experiencing when it comes to filling job roles. Almost a third (31.2%) of respondents are unaware of the demand for new talent within the education sector and almost 1 in 5 (19.2%) are unaware of the need for engineers.

The polling suggests many people could be missing out on rewarding job opportunities due to a lack of knowledge surrounding the current job market.

Government, Employers and Individuals Working Together

What became apparent to me as we talked about this issue facing our economy is that the solution is not simple. To resolve it will take a concerted effort and investment on the part of government, employers and individuals to ensure we have the right skills to succeed as a nation.

For government it is key that we continue the journey to rebuild strong vocational pathways such as apprenticeships and technical qualifications (T levels) and foster and encourage lifetime learning.

This should be in close partnership with both employers and educators to ensure we equip both our future and current workforce with the latest most relevant skills.

This means more education and training of high-end skills such as digital and technology etc in schools, colleges and HE and greater collaboration between employers and educators to co-develop skills.

Supporting Employers

It is also imperative that DfE looks at how it can support businesses in the huge re-skilling and upskilling effort required. Apprenticeships are a great tool for this, but consideration should be given to whether alternative options could compliment these.

Shorter technical programmes to re-skill employees on foundational skills such as digital could be a valuable addition to the suite of programmes at employer’s disposal.


At Barclays we developed a fantastic “Digital Wings” programme to help prepare our workforce for the new digital world. Short programmes such as this could compliment more intense development activity required where higher skills need to be acquired.

Transferring Skills Between Careers

It’s also important for individuals to take ownership of their own development on the basis that many people will have multiple careers in their lifetime.

Being able to transition easily between careers and have access to great training to build new skills is vital.

I have recently started my own business as a consultant advising businesses on their HR and skills strategies and my learning curve has been incredibly steep so having access to resources and support is vital.

From navigating setting up a company to building a web presence, navigating the minefield of contracts and agreements to developing a marketing and social media plan I have certainly learned a lot of new skills!

Flexible Learning

The Open University have been delivering flexible learning for 50 years this year and the ability to learn flexibly online is critical in our increasingly time starved society. It is also important for those with disabilities where skills need to be accessible.

I learned about OpenLearn during my day with David and having subsequently research was very impressed with the free resources available to help people dip their toe into new skills areas or brush up existing skills.

In the digital age, learning has never been more accessible and flexible and its key that we leverage this to ensure our workforce and our economy remain competitive.

Mike Thompson, Chief Executive, Sustain HR Limited

About Mike Thompson: For the past 10 years Mike has developed multiple award winning Recruitment, Apprenticeship and Diversity programmes. His passion is social mobility and diversity having run the Barclays Apprenticeship programme that has supported over 3000 long term unemployed people into work. Working with multiple third sector organisations, Mike has developed pathways into work for job seekers from all backgrounds including those with Disabilities and over 50s talent.

His work has earned him a place on the Governments Apprenticeship Delivery Board and his programmes 24 National Award wins from the likes of CIPD, BITC and Personnel today.

His is a renowned speaker in the areas of Diversity and Skills and he has often featured on both National Television and Radio. 

He is a father of three and a slightly obsessed marathon runner and triathlete.


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