From education to employment

The skills gap is overrated – why we believe that skills acquisition is an access problem, not a talent problem


The skills gap – where organisations struggle to find skilled employees, particularly at graduate level – is well known and well documented. According to the Open University (@OpenUniversity), the UK’s pervasive skills shortage cost organisations £6 billion in the last year alone, as they bridged knowledge gaps through temporary staffing, increased salaries, and intense workforce training programmes.

But are the scary headlines really representative of what’s happening in the graduate recruitment market?

For us, they’re missing a huge piece of the puzzle. From our own work with universities across the world, we know that there are plenty of skilled and capable students and graduates out there, with bags of potential to make a significant impact in the working world. The problem is that they struggle to connect with employers, and on the flip side, employers struggle to engage with them.

We already know that the most prestigious employers recruit from a small talent pool, targeting a focused number of Red Brick universities through attendance at careers fairs, milkrounds and proactive engagement. And so, when organisations themselves are reporting on the perceived gap, it’s likely that many are simply not aware of the talent that exists.

It’s a problem that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic, too. While a move online should have levelled the playing field – allowing more students better access to more opportunities, it’s not always been the case. Disadvantaged students have struggled to access the technology needed to engage with employers online, and employers are in danger of swapping one set of closed networks for another. Indeed, our own research shows that businesses are still relying on recommendations from friends and colleagues (a form of online nepotism), even in the virtual world.

So, with a cohort of students who have the skills that are in demand, but do not have clear pathways to connect with industry, it’s clear that change is needed. Employers must do more to connect with students from a diverse range of backgrounds, and who have studied at a wider range of institutions. It’s not just the right thing to do – it makes good business sense. Proactively seeking out talent won’t just help to solve the skills shortage, it will fuel the workforce with more innovative and diverse ways of approaching issues.

And universities must play an active role in addressing this problem too, particularly in the face of COVID-19. We’re seeing many institutions embrace virtual careers fairs, which is positive news. We’re also seeing the careers services provide additional training and support on virtual recruitment practices, engage with employers for virtual events and to provide industry standard resources, as well as ongoing input into the curricula

So, we believe that as much as we need to address a skills shortage, we also need to look closely at the pipeline problem we have in the UK. Talent is distributed evenly, but opportunity is often not. For many students – especially those who may have been impacted by equality gaps – it is critical to close this gap between talent and opportunity. 

Handshake’s mission is to democratise access to graduate employment and we believe that the future is bright. Handshake has created an online community where students and prospective employers can connect, giving students visibility into the opportunities across industries and geographies, and providing employers with access to information about the skills and interests of millions of students and recent graduates.

Of course, this isn’t a zero sum game. Opening up recruitment networks doesn’t mean taking opportunity away from those students who are already accessing employment. By improving the way employers access student and graduate talent, we can close the skills gaps and drive more opportunity for everyone.

Handshake has undertaken and commissioned extensive quantitative and qualitative research to investigate the post-Covid jobs landscape and implications for employers, students and society. To download the report and have a closer look at the insights, simply click  here .

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