From education to employment

UK skills gaps and competitiveness – politicians and businesses are concerned

When a parliamentary journal comes with half of its articles pointing out the importance of science and innovation in driving our economy forward, it should certainly set alarm bells ringing for those who are part of this economy.

The last issue of Science in Parliament, the Journal of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, featured pieces from Lord John Browne, Vince Cable, Julian Huppert MP, Professor Sa’ad Medhat and others, who were speaking up for the crucial role of science and engineering in making the UK economy competitive.

In a foreword to his seven-point plan for UK competitiveness Lord Browne said that ‘The long term health of the UK economy will depend on our ability to compete successfully with other technologically advanced and entrepreneurial emerging nations, particularly in the hi-tech and lower [sic.]carbon industries of the future’. In this context the issue of education and training capable of providing fit for purpose, skilled workforce comes into focus. The competitiveness that Lord Browne is referring to is dependent on highly trained people. As Vince Cable said earlier in September, ‘Here we have a problem’ because ‘the pool of unemployed graduates is growing while there is a chronic shortage of science graduates and especially engineers.’ According to a survey by CIPD/KPMG Labour Market Survey in August 2010, 45% of organisations have vacancies, which they can’t fill despite high unemployment. The reason for that is that the types of workers that many businesses lack do not correspond to those that are being ‘produced’ by many educational institutions. Moreover, many young people are considered to be virtually unemployable due to the poor quality of training and education that they have received.

However, it is not training for the sake of training that is required for the UK economy to flourish. It is the needs of business and industry that must define the purpose of learning provision. Education policy and strategy have to address those needs first: training requirements will naturally follow.

Briefly, business needs the following: a sharpening of the capability of the workforce, maximisation of return on investment in training and increasing the mobility of its staff. It also needs to engage with its local training providers more effectively to ensure that business priorities are figured into the training provision.

Business priorities and economic realities have prompted the creation of a new quality assurance scheme for learning institutions and companies themselves. On the one hand businesses want to know which learning providers can fulfil their needs more effectively than others, on the other, companies with strong internal training capability want to be reassured that the latter brings tangible benefits rather than just consuming their resources. At the same time the goal was to avoid the excessive level of paperwork normally associated with quality assurance. The NEF Assured standard that was consequently introduced focused on developmental rather than auditing process, it was also designed in such a way as to build upon existing assessments and standards. The number of sectors that the standard covers is growing, with one of them being STEM, addressing highly topical science, technology and engineering provision in colleges. The colleges undertaking assurance (the standard is called STEM Assured) benefit from an industry-led component being added to their curriculum, differentiating them from their competitors, particularly in areas of hi-tech and low carbon. In addition to this, the National Skills Academies and the National Apprenticeship Service acknowledged the standard. For example, the NSA Nuclear actively embrace the Standard for the nuclear sector.

The Science in Parliament featured article by Prof. Medhat entitled ‘Invigorating STEM Vocational Education’ has praised the standard as enabling ‘stronger collaboration between providers and employers and the delivery of innovative and multi-disciplinary teaching and learning’. In a wider sense, better collaboration between businesses and learning institutions can help the UK economy to stop losing out to other countries due to ineffective workforce, allowing us to bridge skills gaps now and avoid them in the future.

Sa’ad Medhat is chief executive of the New Engineering Foundation, the independent charity that works with key partners and stakeholders to support the advancement of education

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