From education to employment

Soft skills crisis threatens UK’s future economic prosperity #Skills2030

Sam Blyth, Director of Schools and FE, Instructure

If students are to be employable post-education, educators need to prioritise building the kind of critical thinking and emotional intelligence skills that currently form the gap between humans and artificial intelligence #AI

In fact, schools must lay the groundwork for these skills to continue developing and changing over a lifetime.

Our ‘Instructure Skills Study: preparing for the 2030 workplace report’ looks at the skills employers are demanding from recruits today, and how well- equipped secondary school educators believe they are to support these skills.

The report also makes practical recommendations on how schools and businesses can better collaborate to prepare for a rapidly evolving employment landscape, ultimately equipping the UK workforce with the skills to succeed in 2030 and beyond.


The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) warns of a shrinking pool of skilled workers across Europe. Instructure’s research among businesses and academics highlights that eight in ten employers think there is currently a skills gap in the UK. The study also found that 82 per cent of businesses and the same proportion of secondary school educators believe that there is a shortage of skilled candidates available upon leaving education to meet employment requirements. 

The “soft skills crisis” facing UK businesses is often overlooked due to focus on ‘hard’ academic standards.

Soft skills are increasingly valued by businesses, and can be defined as a cluster of productive personality traits which include:

  • Collaboration
  • Communication abilities
  • Language skills
  • Personal habits
  • Cognitive or emotional empathy
  • Time management
  • Teamwork and leadership traits

Indeed, this study shows that employers prioritise problem solving and collaboration over more tangible (measurable) skills like additional languages and university degrees.

However, nearly two thirds of secondary school teachers (68%) and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) (64%) believe that students don’t currently have the soft skills needed to prepare them for the workplace, while around seven in 10 believe soft skills don’t get enough attention in the skills gap debate (69% of SMEs and 73% of secondary school teachers).

This analysis shows the issue is not simply that soft skills aren’t getting enough focus, but also an over-emphasis on hard skills. Around six in ten teachers (62%) and business leaders (58%) feel that schools and universities prioritise ‘hard skills’ (technical abilities and subject-specific disciplines) at the expense of soft skills. Over a quarter (28%) of SMEs say they wouldn’t know where to start to improve their employees’ soft skills.

3 Recommendations For Closing The Soft Skills Gap

In order to tackle the skills shortage, our report looked at the following routes:

1. Finding a Balance

The study has established that prioritising soft skills is essential in order to enable students to thrive in an environment where many traditional job roles will fundamentally change. Yet a majority of teachers (73%) and SMEs (61%) alike believe that curriculum reform wouldn’t have a positive impact on the skills gap. This means developing soft skills when imparting ‘hard skills’ in lessons becomes more important.

Good teaching already incorporates a focus on critical thinking, but prioritising this skill further as part of pedagogy is an essential part of this drive, and can be infused in lessons throughout all disciplines by using in-depth questioning and evaluation of both data and sources.

The second piece of the puzzle is in harnessing technology. While it might seem counterintuitive to say that adding more technology is the best way to offset technology in the workplace rendering certain skill sets obsolete, it’s true. In short, edtech is exactly what’s needed to help prepare students for an automated world.

And while tailored courses in specific areas of tech development –will help to plug an immediate (and wider) skills gap, it’s the use of broader, institution-wide, edtech that will really help in the quest to create multi skilled and adaptable students, ready to deal with the challenges automation brings. Reinforcing this view, Instructure’s own study found that the vast majority of SMEs (67%) and secondary teachers (68%) think that better access to technology in education could help close the skills gap

2. A Focus on Continuing Professional Development (CPD)

Technology use in the classroom supports a learning style which appeals to young minds. Many students already use social media to question, challenge and share ideas across all aspects of their lives. These tools can be harnessed to engage pupils with learning, and be brought into the teaching environment.

Despite this, some teachers and school management are still reticent to use technology in the classroom, and studies suggest this is largely because they’re not as comfortable with it as their students. To address this, some forward-thinking schools provide teachers with Continuing Professional Development (CPD) technology courses.

This approach can help immerse teachers in a digital learning environment in a natural and low-pressure way, making them comfortable with the process and able to start seeing the benefits of using technology at work.

So training teachers themselves is key to all types of skill development and should be delivered in a supportive learning environment. Peer feedback, reflection, and practice is crucial.

Platforms like Instructure’s Practice are used by educators to provide an effective, scalable solution to train and support high quality teachers. Web video-based professional development tools gives teachers the opportunity to ‘learn by doing’ and receive timely, meaningful and actionable peer and expert feedback as part of CPD.

3. Bringing Industry and Educators Together

In addition to changing pedagogy in the classroom, there is also a need for time and effort to be invested in the transition itself between school and the workplace.

Greater collaboration between the academic and business world has long been part of the remit of universities, but more consistent links with schools could be beneficial to young people.

This study found that seven in 10 teachers and SMEs alike felt that better collaboration between school and industry would have a positive impact on the existing skills gap. In addition to better continuity, and the related emphasis on self-directed and independent learning, schools in particular felt that greater access to work experience would help ease the transition into the workplace (77%) and identify the areas where soft skills might be lacking. 

Employers also felt strongly that this would be beneficial (70%) in bridging gaps, but often, businesses end up having to turn schools away due to having too much demand and work experience placements all coming at the same time, for example, in the summer term. This suggests that the value of these initiatives could be increased even further with some small logistical tweaks.

Sam Blyth, Director of Schools and FE, Instructure

Methodology: The research for the Instructure Skills was conducted in March 2019 by Censuswide and surveyed 1,000 businesses and 500 secondary school teachers. Censuswide’s online research is conducted according to Market Research Society guidelines, and is nationally representative. Participants were not told they were participating in a survey on behalf of Instructure.

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