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The gap between the skills people need to thrive and the education and careers opportunities available to them

Susan Higgins, Head of Communications, Edge Foundation

Reflections on the launch of @ukEdge’s 9th Skills Shortage Bulletin 

On 21 October, Edge hosted the official launch of our 9th Skills Shortage Bulletin

With a track record of predicting issues from supply chain shortages to sustainability within the education system, Edge’s bulletins have become an industry mainstay for policymakers and education professionals. 

Their insights are essential for driving Edge’s work too – the issues covered fundamentally impact our mission to make education relevant. 

What are we making it relevant for? 

How is the labour market changing? 

We welcomed five panellists, all valued contributors to our Bulletins. 

The five panellists were:

  1. Kathleen Henehan (Senior Research and Policy Analyst, Resolution Foundation), 
  2. Laura Burley (Public Affairs Lead and Apprenticeship Ambassador, Open University), and 
  3. Lauren Mistry (Director of Strategy, Impact and Communications, Youth Employment UK), 
  4. Joysy John (CEO, 01 Founders) and
  5. Kat Emms, Edge’s own Senior Researcher

Job availability has surged but job quality remains an issue

Chairing the debate, Olly Newton kicked off by probing two dominant narratives around youth skills:

Firstly, youth unemployment is lower than expected following the pandemic – a cause for celebration. Secondly, we should expect long-term negative impacts on these same young people. 

So which is correct? The answer, according to Kathleen Henehan (Resolution Foundation), is both. Interventions like the furlough scheme have minimised youth unemployment.

However, people of all ages – especially those with lower-level qualifications and in job-scarce regions – are likely to feel longer-term effects from the pandemic. In short, job availability has surged but job quality remains an issue. 

Fundamental gap between support services for young people and their ability to access them

Lauren Mistry (Youth Employment UK) added that her organisation’s most recent Youth Voice Census highlighted a fundamental gap between support services for young people and their perceived ability to access these.

For instance, “only 37% of young people who were or had been NEET considered going to the jobcentre,” she explained. “They considered it a place just to get money. Many said they weren’t that desperate yet.” Meanwhile, the survey also showed that young people wanted more in-person careers support. Clearly, then, there’s a disconnect here. 

More support for SMEs is an absolute must

Laura Burley (Open University) highlighted another major gap between government policy and implementation, this time regarding small businesses (SMEs). 

“We’re a nation of SMEs,” Laura said, “yet all policy interventions are for large businesses with the capacity to advocate and work with the government. SMEs don’t have time to engage in apprenticeship trailblazers or go to Number 10 to discuss the issues on the ground.”

This is a problem because, of all businesses, SMEs rely most on apprenticeships for growing talent.

Building on this, Kat Emms (Edge) noted that SMEs make up the majority of businesses in the digital and construction sectors. She highlighted yet another gap, this time between expectations on these businesses and their capacity to deliver.

 “There’s a huge push, for example, for retrofitting houses,” Kat said. “But construction workers don’t have the skills for this. We need a drive to upskill or reskill them. SMEs don’t have the time or money to send people on courses – it’s not a priority.” 

With 96% of businesses that worked with apprentices in the past year planning to continue or expand in this area, more support for SMEs is, therefore, an absolute must. 

Basic employability and life skills

More broadly, Olly questioned if the current education system was delivering on basic employability and life skills? Joysy John, CEO of private-public partnership 01 Founders, which delivers free training and guaranteed job offers to software engineers, believes not. 

The competitive, accountability-driven school system isn’t conducive to training these kinds of skills, Joysy said:

“The education system was set up 150 years ago. This was fine when we were industrialising but the world is different now.

“The education system isn’t prepared for the digital era, or for giving people the skills to collaborate and problem solve. The single biggest skill the education system could teach is learning to learn. Today’s knowledge has a shelf life.” 

Lauren expanded further on this, saying that while young people believe they know what skills they need, they require guidance in understanding how to apply these skills in different contexts:

“Young people love learning and are ready to work. They’re enthusiastic about their futures. The majority even know what sorts of careers they want to go into – but there’s a trick to learning these skills that we’re not giving them.” 

Future hopes and expectations

And what of future hopes and expectations? 

Kathleen reiterated the need to remain vigilant to the longer-term impacts of the pandemic. Laura drove home the need for more government support for SMEs. Similarly, Kat felt the government must honour its pledge of £90M support-funding for arts and creative development in secondary schools. And Joysy predicted a growing need for green skills and a surge in roles around mental health. 

How these views hold up, only our tenth skills bulletin will tell! 

Susan Higgins, Head of Communications, The Edge Foundation 


Skills shortages in the UK economy 

“Young people do not know what skills are wanted of them, they do not know what skills they already have and they do not believe employers have good quality opportunities for them.” Youth Voice Census 2021 

21 October 2021: Over the years, Edge’s Skills Shortage Bulletins have shone a much-needed light on the gap between the skills people need to thrive and the education and careers opportunities available to them.

Our 9th bulletin brings together research on a wide range of issues:

  • championing sustainability in our education system, the benefits of strengthening our creative industries,
  • the penalties young people are experiencing in the labour market, and
  • the difficulties older workers face in reskilling and transitioning into different job roles.

As you’d expect, Covid-19 features front and centre as we look at where our economy is going post pandemic.

Alice Barnard100x100“As we enter the post pandemic era, England’s politicians of all persuasions are finally making the connection between education, skills and the future of the UK economy.

“Our work has been highlighting the skills mismatch for years but our warnings have fallen on deaf ears.

“If Boris Johnson wants a highly-skilled, highly-waged and highly-productive economy he needs to act now by transforming and properly funding our education system.” – Edge Chief Executive, Alice Barnard

Key points from the report:

  • Only 9.9% of young people feel confident that they will be able to access quality work where they live. (Youth Voice Census 2021)
  • At a time of rising unemployment, a third of Britons (34%) want to change careers. (City & Guilds Group and Burning Glass Technologies)
  • The skills shortages in AI and the digital sector reflect pipeline issues in schools. Fewer students are choosing to study ICT at GCSE, while schools lack resources to invest in equipment and digital skills training. (Learning & Work Institute 2021)
  • As well as ‘support to get environmental jobs’, young people also want ‘more time spent learning in and about nature’ and ‘government, employers, businesses, schools and charities to pay more attention to the needs of young people and the environment’. (Our Bright Future, Nash 2020)
  • By 2025 the Creative Industries could create 300,000 new jobs, bouncing back from the impact of Covid-19 and surpassing pre-pandemic employment levels. Again, creative subjects are falling in schools because of the narrow curriculum underpinned by the EBacc. (Creative Industries Federation and Creative England, July 2021)

All of this adds further to the weight of evidence behind Edge’s mission to Make Education Relevant.

If we are to properly prepare young people for the future of work, Government needs to replace the EBacc and Progress 8 with a truly broad and balanced curriculum, Rethink Assessment to value a broader range of skills than simply memorising facts and reverse the damaging cuts to BTECs.

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