From education to employment

Upskilling and reskilling adult workers – the problem of employer demand

Irena Grugulis

By the year 2025, according to the World Economic Forum, 44% of the skills that employees need to perform their roles will have changed, and nine out of 10 workers will need some form of reskilling. However, the results of two recent UK surveys reveal that 61% of employees say they do not have the skills they need for the next five years and 26% have not participated in workplace training for a decade.

This strongly indicates that there is an urgent need to upskill and reskill adult workers to enable the UK to meet the upcoming challenges facing its future prosperity and productivity, and that there are huge risks in failing to take action.

The work and employment expert group, ReWAGE, recently carried out an analysis of existing research for Gatsby Education. We found that although there has been an increase in individual skills and qualifications, job design has failed to keep pace with these changes leading many workers in the UK to report that their skills are under-used and their level of autonomy has fallen dramatically.

Contributory factors

One issue is the rise of narrowly designed jobs with more roles being ‘worker-proofed’, using routinisation and automation to give employees less and less opportunity to use their existing skills or develop new ones.

There has also been a drop in employer-funded training – between 1997 and 2017 employer investment in training fell by 60% with 30 percent of employees saying that they have received no workplace training at all the last five years. Overall, UK employers invest just half of the EU average in training. In addition, cuts to FE budgets meaning that spending on work-based learning for adults has decreased by about 25 per cent in real terms since 2009-10.

There is an enduring problem of a lack of employer demand for skills and an increasing trend for employers to ‘retreat’ from training – preferring to solve skills shortages through recruitment rather than training their existing employees.

Successive governments and employers have all agreed that training is valuable, but as the statistics demonstrate, this is not backed up with practical action. Employers are choosing to compete by designing jobs that require few or no skills meaning that training can be minimised or omitted.

While this may cost employers less in the short-term, limiting workers’ progression and development is alienating and will make companies that will allow employees to develop and use their skills more attractive. Looking at the wider, long-term picture, it will also decrease the UK’s ability to adopt new work practices and technologies, hampering its ability to keep pace with international competitors.

Initiatives that could help, such as the Levelling Up programme, are too narrowly focused on regional infrastructure projects. It does acknowledge the need for human capital, high quality skills training and good jobs but employment forms only a small element of its wider proposals. The upskilling and reskilling of adult workers would benefit from more attention as improvements to jobs and skills have the potential to benefit government, business and society in a range of ways.

Jobs that pay decent wages and offer progression opportunities enable employees to work their way out of poverty and let governments benefit from increased revenue. Creating such jobs requires changes to both the demand and the supply side: upskilling and reskilling both jobs and workers. For Levelling Up to work effectively we need to actively improve productivity, raising the quality of goods and services and raising wages. High skill, high wage jobs require highly skilled workers.

None of this can be achieved without redesigning jobs, upskilling large numbers of our current workforce and reskilling those whose industries have been in decline. Relying on the existing system to address this is unlikely to be successful. As most high-quality training is targeted on workers who are already highly qualified, it does little to tackle the existing inequality in the skills system.

So, what are the solutions?

Firstly, we need to have an honest appraisal of the systematic problems, and fully embrace the fact that employers, whilst being part of the issue in the way that they are choosing to recruit, are also crucially part of the solution. The key issue here is how to move employers from the role of ‘customers’ in the skills system to that of co-producers. Many excellent employers do take the lead in this area, but there is a clear need for a sustained conversation with employers about their contribution to what should be a joint enterprise.

Redesigning jobs to be more skillful may be challenging, but it is possible, and even small adaptations to jobs can serve to improve the experience of work and better prepare workers for progression opportunities. On a larger scale, collaboration between firms can help to both make jobs more skillful and enable firms to become more competitive. Government can do a lot to encourage the upskilling of jobs, shaping practice in the public sector, encouraging initiatives such as the NHS Skills Escalator and ensuring that official contracts privilege good employment practice. It also needs to actively support employers to work collaboratively and upskill workers.

4 practical steps to upskilling and reskilling

  • Extend employers’ involvement in Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) beyond simple links to colleges and local providers to stimulate further skills-based training within their own organisations and measure employers’ increased numbers of apprenticeships and adult training.
    • Engage local and national stakeholder groups in redesigning jobs – actively upskilling jobs (perhaps via LSIPs) and improving HR practices so that employers can engage in upskilling and reskilling. Fund ACAS to play a role in maintaining and expanding this activity.
    • Introduce qualifications for experienced workers to both boost their technical competence and train them in how to train and develop others in work. Improve links, collaboration and co-operation between adult training and education, private training providers, FE colleges and universities.
    • Use independent advice on skills to drive policy – the Unit for Future Skills (UFS) in the Department for Education is already actively improving the quality of information on skills. It would be helpful to build on this through an independent body, working closely with the UFS but outside Government and modelled on the lines of the Low Pay Commission, to provide policy recommendations.

            By Irena Grugulis – co-Chair of ReWAGE and Professor of Work and Skills at the University of Leeds

            To find out more, you can read the full evidence paper on the ReWAGE website.

            Professor Grugulis is co-chair of ReWAGE, an independent expert advisory group that analyses the latest work and employment research to advise the government on addressing the current challenges facing the UK’s productivity and prosperity, such as Covid-19, the cost-of-living crisis and labour shortages.

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