Unpicking the ‘skills gap’ narrative.
“The number of job vacancies unfilled because employers cannot find candidates with the appropriate skills has risen by 130% in 4 years” (UK Commission for Employment and Skills UKCET report, January 2016)
When employers or politicians complain of skills shortages, there is a tendency for the narrative to be about the education system failing to ensure that young people have the required skills. This in turn fits into a related narrative of the weakness, or failure of our vocational education.
“The current environment of skills shortages and high unemployment reflect a clear mismatch between educational output and employment needs.” (NEF The Innovation Institute, October 2012)
Are these perspectives beyond criticism? Clearly employers know what skills they need and have identified gaps between the skills they want their employees to have and those being offered by job applicants. They are then telling us that the education system should do something about it. Who can argue with that?
We need to define our terms and try to understand the various factors in play:
Skills and education
‘Skills’ is a catch-all description of a very broad set of abilities and experiences which people can demonstrate. At one end of the spectrum, good functional literacy and numeracy are skills we would wish the education system to guarantee all school leavers. Employers, should therefore be able to take these for granted in most applicants.
At the other extreme, what about the ability to operate a specialised tool or process which is highly industry-specific and only required by a small number of employers? Is this not the kind of skill for which only the employer themselves can provide the required training as part of employee induction or via an apprenticeship or day-release programme?
So one question is actually about where we draw the line between job-specific training and education, whether general or vocational. Maybe the problem is that there is no consensus about what kind of ‘work-readiness’ general education provision should be aiming for.
Let’s be clear – education is not, and should not be, about job-specific training. Its role is to help people acquire the knowledge and skills needed to live a good life not to slot them as quickly as possible into particular roles. But finding worthwhile, rewarding employment is an important part of human flourishing and we do want our students to leave us with a good work ethic and the ability to make an effective economic and social contribution and make sensible work-related decisions for themselves.
Vocational education is not job training. Most of the vocational courses offered to young people aged 16-18 who have a strong interest in a particular sector don’t target a narrow job role. They are an introduction to a sector in its fullest sense, developing a broad knowledge base and some sector-related skills while remaining part of a general education for life, work and citizenship. They provide considerable transferability between sectors, something which is particularly welcomed by those students whose progression isn’t necessarily a smooth trajectory from 16 straight through to 21.
If some school-leavers really aren’t ‘work-ready’, we need to be clear what it is they lack which prevents them being employable or which can’t be provided by any good employer as part of their training or apprenticeship.
When employers are asked, they report that they highly value literacy and numeracy as well as certain generic personal skills and educators should certainly take note. High on the list are: effective communication, interpersonal skills, time management, independent working, initiative, team work, planning and managing projects.
These skills are of use in all spheres of life and should certainly be explicitly developed throughout education and not simply for reasons of employability. They form a valid part of a broad liberal education for all rather than necessarily requiring specific work-related programmes aimed only at certain students.
The labour market
Using the word ‘shortage’ implies a supply problem; not enough STEM specialists for example. If we agree that this is a supply problem, then the answer is presumably to do something to increase the supply by getting the education system to raise its game and turn out more skilled job applicants.
But what if the problem is not as simple as this? What if it is less about a skills deficit and more about an incentives deficit? For instance, skilled STEM graduates choosing to work in finance because the rewards or prospects seem better. The solution to this type of problem won’t be found by reforming the education or qualification system or by simply increasing the number of STEM graduates. Supply side solutions won’t work if the problem is not a supply side problem. Instead, what might be required are measures which make certain jobs more attractive, such as wage or training incentives to attract applicants where there are shortages.
Dr. Thijs van Rens from the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick puts it very succinctly when he sets out just 3 possible reasons for a skills mismatch in the labour market:
- Workers not adjusting to changes in skills demand (eg: caused by new systems and technologies)
- Employers not adjusting to changes in skill supply (eg: by not investing in training and selection)
- Wages not reflecting skills shortages (whether by rising or falling)
He concludes that reform of the education system is not the answer to any of these labour market problems.
The education / training / employment interface is dynamic and fluid and educators must engage with the debate about the nature of work in our economy. But we must never lose our focus on the universal core purpose of education.
Clearly, as educators we share responsibility for the development of tomorrow’s workers. However, the danger of an uncritical acceptance of the ‘skills gap’ narrative is that we can end up blaming ourselves and our students for wider economic and labour market problems such as vacancy rates, unemployment or underemployment. We all want a healthy economy but we must take care that in addressing the ‘skills gap’ we don’t widen the ‘education gap’.
Is vocational education in England really inadequate? (January 2016)
Let’s celebrate vocational success (January 2016)
Education or training? (May 2015)
5 vocational myths to avoid (March 2015)
Do qualifications create wealth? (January 2015)
Vocational education: rejecting the narrative of failure (January 2015)
Useful further reading:
Low wages not education to blame for skills gap, Thijs van Rens (December 2015)
Employers aren’t just whining – the ‘skills gap’ is real, James Bessen (August 2014)
Jobs and skills and zombies, Paul Krugman (March 2014)