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Closing the skills gap – the recurring challenge

Dr Andrew Lindridge is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at The Open University Business School.

Britain suffers from stubborn skills shortages, which Brexit will only make worse. So how can business, education and government work together to solve things?

Brexit. One word, one term and so many implications. Regardless of whether you voted to leave or remain, both sides laid claim to the pressing issue of improving Britain’s international competitiveness. Central to our increased competitiveness is developing a workforce that is not only flexible in its capabilities but one that is highly skilled in developing those capabilities. Yet for the past one hundred years, Britain’s recurring skills shortage has hindered this country’s international competitiveness.

In a government report entitled ‘Fixing the foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation’ (2015), Britain’s national skills shortage was described as “of such long standing and such intractability that only the most radical actions can redress them”. Furthermore, our skills gap is increasing when compared to competitor nations. For example, in a 2015 report the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development compared twenty-three countries and noted that English teenagers had the lowest literacy and were second from the lowest in terms of numerical skills. In a separate 2015 report, The UK Commission on Employment and Skills noted that even when potential employees were educated to university level, they often failed to have the key skills required by employers.

Previously, British industry has been able to address this skills shortage through employing skilled foreign labour, chiefly from the European Union, which brings us back to Brexit. Without knowing how Brexit will affect British employers’ ability to recruit from Europe, attention has now focused on how Britain should address its skill shortage. Indeed, at the time of writing this article Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, had publicly condemned Theresa May’s decision to reintroduce grammar schools instead calling for technical subjects to be taught in schools and the establishment of new technology colleges for 14-19-year-olds. This would be a new learning approach ensuring Britain has the necessary skills to support its post-Brexit economy.

What are these skills that employers want and currently holding back Britain’s competitiveness in a post-Brexit world? A review of various reports identifies employers want their employees to have a range of skills, including: communication, team working and commercial awareness.

Currently the British government and British universities are attempting to address this skills shortage. The soon to be launched Apprenticeship Degrees aim to address it through practical on the job training and learning. Indeed, The Open University has collaborated with the Chartered Management Institute to deliver a management orientated apprenticeship degree. Central to the success of apprenticeship degrees is British organisations supporting and encouraging their employees to participate and complete these degrees. How then should employees motivate their employees to commit themselves to undertaking and completing an apprenticeship degree or any form of training and learning, regardless of whether its skills based or otherwise?

The answer lies in creating within the employee a sense of value. Creating a sense of value has been a central tenet of marketing for as long as marketing has existed. Value is what gets us to repeatedly purchase certain brands. Yet the importance of value to organisations goes well beyond the boundaries of marketing. We can define value as the satisfaction individuals experience when purchasing or engaging with goods or services relative to what they must give up to receive them. An employee’s motivation to undergo any training or learning is based upon the sense of value they experience. Therefore, the greater the employees perceived value of undertaking training, the more motivated they will be to successfully complete that training.

Creating a sense of value within training and learning requires employees to feel that the total benefits of undertaking it exceed the total costs incurred. The greater the total benefits exceed the total costs, the greater the value of the training and learning is to the employee.

What then constitutes training and learning costs? These will vary both in difference and importance for each employee. For example, costs incurred by an employee in engaging with training may include but not be limited to: psychological costs (will the training cause the employee to feel unhappy or challenge their existing knowledge), energy cost (if the employee feels exhausted from undertaking their job will this training add to their feeling of exhaustion) and time cost (will the training be undertaken outside of their regular working hours). Finally, what is the financial cost of undertaking the training and learning to the employee? The greater the costs, the greater the perceived benefit to the employee needs to be.

Employers can create benefit for employees undertaking training through a number of ways. First, employees are motivated by their need to improve their self-image, as well as how others perceive them. Any training perceived by the employee as improving or enhancing their self-image within the organisation will be seen as a benefit. Second, if the employee perceives their training as having a personal benefit to them, this will increase their motivation to undertake the training. For example, if a learning outcome of training is assertiveness then this may benefit the employee in their personal life as well. Third, who provides and delivers the training will affect the employee’s perception of the benefits they will gain from the training. Consider a training course being delivered by the employer versus the employer using an external provider. For most employees the perception of an external provider of training may infer greater cost to the employer suggesting a greater level of importance. Consequently, the employee may perceive greater benefit in undertaking the training. Finally, what is the benefit to the employee to undertaking the training? Will it lead to promotion, career development or salary increase?

Britain’s post-Brexit future as an internationally competitive country partially depends upon training and delivering a highly skilled workforce. If employers can recognise and emphasise to employees the value of undertaking training and learning, then Britain will take a positive step forward into a brave new world.

This article was first published by HR Magazine on 25 October 2016