From education to employment

Staff recruitment and retention problems are not just affecting training providers, but our whole economy

Jane Hickie, Chief Executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP)

One of the biggest issues facing the FE sector is the ability to attract and retain the employees that deliver the high-quality training provision learners need and deserve. More and more AELP members tell us they’re struggling to recruit and retain staff. Coming at a time of rising costs, and a decline in living standards, this has the potential to cause real issues for the sector. I would go as far as saying that this is now the number one issue that training providers raise with me- for the first time, even more so than learner recruitment. Which is not to say that the latter isn’t an issue- far from it. But it demonstrates the seriousness of the situation. AELP have recently launched a survey on staff recruitment and retention issues within the sector with the aim of helping us to gather more evidence on these challenges. This evidence will then inform our lobbying and advocacy activities in this area.

Training providers do not operate in a vacuum, and these issues will come as little surprise to anyone that saw the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) labour force survey results last week. Figures released for the period between December 2021 and February 2022 show that unemployment rates have decreased once more, and we now have a record number of vacancies within the economy – just under 1.3 million jobs unfilled.

These figures give further evidence to the argument we’ve been making for many years- we must tackle the UK’s growing skills gap head on. Employers are increasingly finding it hard to recruit the right people, with the right skills, at the right time. Training providers are no different in this respect. Make no mistake- this is holding back the economy at a crucial time- following the Covid-19 pandemic, while also establishing a new relationship with the European Union and dealing with the economic fallout from the conflict in Ukraine.

Rising costs are also affecting the sector badly. Rightly, much has been made of the crisis facing many families from rising domestic energy bills, but inflation is affecting businesses too. In addition, the lack of fair funding arrangements for the many different types of qualifications that our members deliver is hurting the sector more than ever. A world class skills system needs to be funded in a way that reflects the true cost of delivering high-quality qualifications. Last month’s Spring Statement was a chance for the Chancellor to acknowledge this, but I’m afraid he missed a golden opportunity to do so. I worry that without fixing some of the fundamental issues affecting further education, we will struggle to attract and keep good employees within the sector.

It’s time to close the skills gap

The issues affecting the skills sector reflect the skills shortages that affect our whole economy. To solve that we need to get serious about tackling the skills gap. In practice, this means a much bigger focus on lifelong learning, as well as investment in programmes like apprenticeships, traineeships, and adult education. As a society, we are growing older, and as a result many of us are working later in life and delaying retirement. We may have several different careers over our working life and that will require reskilling and upskilling along the way. People change, as do the needs of the labour market. Incentivising employers and workers to keep their skills up to date throughout their working life must be a priority for any government.

We must also see a faster shift towards an employer and learner-led system which treats providers of all types fairly. Without a strong and sustainable skills sector – and the brilliant staff we need working in it – we will not be able to train the people industry needs. Unfortunately, we still have a skills landscape which penalises learners for no other reason than where they choose to study. Despite being responsible for delivering 7 out of 10 apprenticeships nationally – as well as adult education, the majority of traineeships and skills bootcamps – independent training providers are not treated with parity by government. A fairer and transparent approach to skills policy would go a long way to rectifying this giving training providers a level playing field when it comes to recruiting and retaining staff.

Taking the arguments to government

We are really keen to support our members and the wider sector through these turbulent times. Our research will gather more evidence outlining the impact staff recruitment and retention is having on employers and I look forward to sharing it in due course. This evidence will make it easier to take our arguments directly to government but in the meantime we will, of course, still campaign for the types of policies that will deliver a sustainable skills sector able to attract and retain high-quality training staff.

By Jane Hickie, Chief Executive, AELP

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