Britain's skills gap

Industrial and Commercial Training

ISSN: 0019-7858

Article publication date: 1 February 2000




(2000), "Britain's skills gap", Industrial and Commercial Training, Vol. 32 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Britain's skills gap

Britain's skills gap

Keywords: Labour market, Trainees, training, Youth training, Vocational training, Employee reports

Flexible "hire and fire" labour markets have undermined the UK's national training effort, says a new report from the Trades Union Congress (TUC). It finds that the UK has more poorly qualified employees and fewer young people in training than most of its European competitors.

The report, Britain's Skills Gap, shows that the decline in collective bargaining encouraged by previous governments has reduced the positive influence of trade unions on training and job stability. At the same time, mistrust and insecurity have risen to post-war highs, reducing both work commitment and the economic benefits of investment in training.

Britain's Skills Gap concludes that reliance on market forces, the goodwill of employers and the hope that individual employees will take responsibility for their own training will not deliver the investment in skills needed by the economy as a whole. Instead, says the report, a statutory framework is required setting down clear obligations and fiscal incentives for employers to provide both vocational training and life-long learning, including a right to paid educational leave.

The TUC report points to clear evidence of a significant "skills gap" in the UK, which means lack of skills reduces business efficiency and competitiveness, and contributes to the 20-25 per cent workplace productivity gap between the UK and countries such as France and Germany.

Commenting on the new report, TUC General Secretary, John Monks, said:

The need for the UK to have a highly trained, skilled workforce has never been greater. The UK's voluntary approach to training is clearly not working. Unless training is given a statutory underpinning, the skills gap between the UK and its competitors around the world will continue to grow and grow. The UK's flexible labour market is just not up to delivering the long-term investment in training the economy so desperately needs.

The more regulated labour markets and high levels of collective bargaining in most European countries provide more positive support for training. Britain's Skills Gap shows that in the mid-1990s:

  • across Europe, between 40 and 45 per cent of young people between the ages of 20 and 24 were in education or training, nearly double the UK rate of 24 per cent;

  • a total of 40 per cent of prime age adults (ages 25-59) in work in the UK had less than upper secondary education (left school at 16), compared with 32 per cent in France and only 13 per cent in Germany;

  • in France and Germany, between 60 and 65 per cent of the population had qualifications equivalent to NVQ level 2 or above, compared with only 40 per cent in the UK.

The report also says that some official indicators showing rising participation in training are misleading. Instead, training effort by employers may actually have fallen in the 1990s. Latest official figures and surveys confirm there is no room for complacency:

  • Between spring 1997 and spring 1998, training volumes (total hours of training received in the last week before the survey) fell by 8 per cent (Department for Education and Employment (DfEE), Education and Training Statistics).

  • Between 1995 and 1998, the share of employees receiving off-the-job training fell from 44 per cent to 36 per cent (DfEE, Skill Needs Survey).

  • Signficantly fewer young people say they get "job-related" training today than in 1990.

  • In 1998, of those employers with recruitment problems, 41 per cent said the most important reason was lack of skilled people, but only 7 per cent were prepared to train in response (DfEE, Skill Needs Survey).

Britain's Skills Gap shows that, while skills shortages undoubtedly exist, the fact that many employers are having problems filling certain job vacancies is more to do with poor pay, high employee turnover, job insecurity and bad employment conditions than down to any lack of formal skills or qualifications within the UK labour market.

For further details, contact the TUC, Congress House, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3LS. Tel: 0171 636 4030.

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