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Top 5 skills priorities for UK employers: An agile skills training system more crucial than ever

JANE BOARDMAN Chair, Workplace Training and Development Commission
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Published today (6 May) the final report from the Workplace Training and Development Commission (WTDC), follows an 18-month in-depth study of what businesses want from adult skills training provision in the UK:

The problem of skills shortages has long hampered the UK economy, leaving employers struggling to fill job vacancies and raise productivity. 

The workplace is rapidly becoming more digital and automated, so businesses need more people with the technical skills for these changing jobs. 

But too often employers cannot access the training they need and, as a result, are spending less and less on training each year. 

The impact of the pandemic has made investing in adult skills more important than ever.  Employers need a more joined-up and flexible system that can respond quickly to skills needs and opportunities.   

The last year has seen the economy placed under the greatest strain it has experienced in decades and the full impact on employment and growth has yet to be seen.

As businesses rebuild and respond to the challenges ahead, a more agile skills training system will be crucial.


When the Workplace Training and Development Commission was launched in October 2019, the economy was relatively strong, and employment was near to the highest levels on record.

In every corner of the UK and in every sector of the economy, skills shortages left employers struggling to fill job vacancies and crying out for more people with digital and technical skills in the workplace.

We heard of the damaging impact of skills shortages on firms’ ability to grasp new growth opportunities, win new contracts, innovate and stay ahead of the competition.

Stymied by low productivity, employers said that accessing skilled people was a top priority.

Just over one year on, access to skilled people remains high on the business agenda.

The Coronavirus pandemic is having a devastating impact on health and jobs and creating substantial new challenges for employers in the management of people and workplaces.

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Employers needing to recruit from outside the UK now face additional costs and complexity following the introduction of new immigration rules.

And, as the net-zero imperative propels business towards a greener economy, firms face further challenges and opportunities requiring a wide range of new skills.

These developments will make investment in adult skills even more important.

As well as more digital and technical skills, people need to adapt their existing skills to an evolving digital world that is likely to involve more remote management of people, customer relationships and trade. Supporting employees to thrive in this rapidly changing workplace will ensure they can contribute to increased workplace productivity and help rebuild the economy.

We need a renewed focus on lifelong learning where employers and policy makers foster an environment of continuous learning, training and reskilling. And we must leave no business or employee behind on the transformation journey.

Throughout the Commission’s inquiry, we have considered what business can do for itself to tackle skills shortages and looked for ideas and best practice within the UK and elsewhere. We examined the skills system from the perspective of the employer, the extent to which it can respond and flex to meet commercial and growth aspirations, and how policy makers can support business and incentivise investment in training.

As employers we cannot look to others to solve our skills needs

Top 5 priorities for the skills system, highlighted by UK employers

  1. Building High Performance Learning Cultures – Supporting businesses to identify, plan, articulate and invest in workplace training and development needs.
  2. Digital skills and innovation – Equipping the workforce with the digital skills needed for businesses to grow and innovate.
  3. Using the skills system – A stable and coherent employer-led skills system, with prestigious technical and vocational qualifications together with flexible, bite-sized accredited training.
  4. Place-based solutions – Giving employers a strong voice and appropriate influence over the skills system for their area; and
  5. Enabling Employees – Supporting individuals to develop their own skills.

Whilst we conclude that policy change is needed, it’s clear that as employers we cannot look to others to solve our skills needs. The need for business to engage with the skills system and develop our own home-grown talent is now urgent.

Many employers are demonstrating leadership in this at a local and national level, including helping to design new courses and qualifications, offering apprenticeships and providing support and experience to those new to the world of work. But many more businesses need support to identify, articulate and plan for the skills needs of their adult workforce.

Working together with employees, training providers, government and other key stakeholders, business can overcome barriers and boost investment and return on workplace training.

Many thanks to all the businesses, Accredited Chambers of Commerce and organisations who have contributed time, ideas and challenge to inform our inquiry.

We hope the practical solutions and recommendations in our report will help employers to fully engage with the skills system and we look forward to continuing our skills conversation with businesses, training providers and policy makers to achieve this ambition.

JANE BOARDMAN, Chair, Workplace Training and Development Commission

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