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Are we ready for a skills crisis?

Posted on by from Open University

According to the government’s Employer Skills Survey, the number of jobs that remain unfilled due to shortages in skills has risen by 30% since 2013.



The impact of these so-called skills shortage vacancies can be very damaging for businesses: at the point when a vacancy opens up and cannot be adequately filled, HR professionals are faced with a particularly difficult scenario. As businesses face up to the prospect of even greater demand for important skills in areas such as digital technologies and cyber security, what proactive steps can be taken to avert a potential crisis? 

Take the time to make a skills plan

An important part of this strategy is forward planning. Taking the time to reflect on the current business needs and to consider the future direction of the company will help to create an in-depth skills strategy for ongoing and upcoming skills requirements. This will help decision makers to assess the particular skills gaps that their business is facing, providing a strategic backbone upon which to base learning and development policies. I support many companies as they make these plans, and in the best cases these strategies take into consideration continuous learning opportunities for staff. Not only do individuals need avenues to develop in their current role, but just as importantly, they need the opportunity to acquire the skills and capabilities they need to move up to the next level.

Putting this kind of skills plan in place could be key to giving firms the benefit of time in which to take action to rectify skills gaps, yet HR can still face aversion from executives who shy away from investing time in learning and development. Selecting training programmes which are work-based, and encourage learners to develop their theoretical knowledge in relation to practice, offers near real-time results. When employees are asked to apply their learning to day-to-day work scenarios, the benefits of training are fed back into the business even before the training programme is complete. When I was an Executive at Reuters firm Lipper, I would often put employees through The Open University’s courses: where the first assignments would typically come six weeks into the course. During these years I saw from the perspective of a business leader how much benefit the employee and employer can see within weeks of embarking on a course.

Invest in current employees

Whilst HR professionals should dedicate time to building a company-wide response to skills requirements in the business, the process of upskilling employees need not take unnecessary lengths of time. Indeed, the prospect of fighting for external talent in the labour market presents a more prohibitive proposition for businesses, with often significant time and cost implications, and the nagging possibility that they will not secure any suitable candidates. 

Focusing time and resource on development opportunities for existing employees represents a smart strategy. In a labour market where businesses are struggling to fill vacancies, where there are a limited number of professionals who match certain requirements, staff retention and talent attraction can present a challenge. The benefit to be gained from the knowledge and experience of existing employees is significant. Keeping current employees upskilled is important for businesses, as they can benefit from the corporate knowledge invested in their workforces, whilst also averting any shortages in skills. 

Reassess business needs

Keeping the business ahead of the crisis is a challenging task, particularly as the fast pace of change in areas such as IT is regularly making new demands on employees’ skillsets. HR professionals must remember that training is not about box ticking, instead requiring continual reassessment of business needs, as well as full engagement of employees. I meet many organisations who have eloquent mission statements printed on colourful posters on their walls – but employees aren’t necessarily kept up to date with this strategy and the role they have to play in it. If an organisation wants to grow, it has to enable staff to grow in line with this strategy, and that will mean constantly adapting to new demands on skillsets. The skills a business boasts of today are not necessarily the same as those it will need tomorrow, so staying ahead of the skills crisis has to be part of an ongoing process.  

Steve  Hill

By Steve Hill

Steve is director of external engagement at The Open University with responsibility for strengthening links between business and education in order to boost skills provision in the UK. Steve is an Open University graduate, who as an employer in the business world regularly sponsored employees to take training courses.

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