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The skills rebalancing act

Annie Peate

01 November 2010

The Coalition government faces a significant challenge in the coming years. With debt expected to peak at 74.9% of GDP, cuts announced in the public sector, and a growing necessity for growth from the knowledge intensive private sector industries, the government has committed itself to ‘rebalancing’ the economy.


However, the UK suffers from considerable skills problems, most notably the under-utilisation of skills in the work place. How then is the new government to go about creating a skills system which is fit for the demands of the post-recession economy?


This question was at the heart of the launch of The Work Foundation’s paper, ‘Employability and Skills in the UK: Redefining the debate’, produced in partnership with the LCCI Commercial Education Trust. Participants at the 27 October event, which included presentations from Ian Brinkley, Director of The Work Foundation’s Knowledge Economy Programme and Dr David Guile of the Institute of Education, explored the important but difficult employability and skills debate.


Some argued for greater university involvement in equipping individuals with the necessary ‘employability skills’, whilst others suggested that responsibility lies with employers. Many also criticised both the complexity of the system and the lack of a coherent vocabulary and understanding of the key concepts themselves. As Dr Guile pointed out, in the last ten years alone we have seen terms such as ‘core’ and ‘functional’ skills come and go, only to be replaced by something equally as ambiguous.


The report demonstrates the need for policy makers to tackle these issues now or face compromising the UK’s international economic competitiveness in the coming years. This includes an integrated local approach that involves government, education providers, employers and Local Enterprise Partnerships. It is of critical importance to define exactly what skills we need and match the skills supply to those skills that are in demand across the country. Only then will any form of ‘rebalancing’ take place.

Comments in Chronological Order (Total 3 Comments)

John Smith

03 Nov 2010 3:40PM

Nice article, though I think the key to this lies with employers and not universities or policy. All too often employers ignore the diverse skills exhibited by their workforce in favour of more defined and structured employee roles.

As a result over time employees become too specialised and neglect skills that may afford them greater employment mobility. People find themselves out of work and only able to perform one kind of role. Surely a better utilisation of existing skills, and a more diversely trained workforce would be more economical in the long run?

Robert Campbell

06 Dec 2010 3:27PM

There has always been an issue with new university graduates lacking 'employability' skills. Back in 1976 when I graduated most employers recognised that new graduates would need time to learn the disciplines of work and, in my experience at least, most did fairly quickly within a few months of commencing employment. Universities are no worse now at helping students become 'work ready' than they were 30 years ago and it's probably not realistic for them to take on this role alone. So if the perceived problem is that graduates are not 'work ready' and that is somehow creating a new problem, then I think it is a misguided view and hides the real issues.

The huge explosion in numbers of people going into higher education, which the labour Government encouraged, has perhaps raised an expectation that commerce and industry would be able to provide sufficient numbers of 'quality' jobs for the emerging graduates; yet go into a typical high street outlet, e.g. a bookseller, and you will find 2.1 English graduates manning the tills, simply because they can't find employment within a diminishing jobs market (this was true before the recession as well).

Although there seems to be a constant shortage of Science and Maths graduates, there has been no obvious encouragement of students into these disciplines.

So perhaps there is a case for a 'simple' analysis of the subject disciplines which commerce and industry requires being followed up with some monetary incentive for students to study the disciplines most in need. And perhaps we cannot, at the moment anyway, afford to subsidise higher level learning for learning's sake.

It seems unlikely that commerce and industry is going to create the large numbers of lower skilled jobs needed until higher education is turning out the type and quality of graduates which they require to manage and grow their companies.

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