Addressing the mid-level skills gap and improving opportunities for low paid workers

It is widely recognised that the UK has a mid-level skills gap, which means employers can struggle to recruit for medium skilled occupations. At the same time, it can be hard for established workers (those over 25) to retrain or upskill if they aren’t supported by their employer or can’t self-fund.

In my day job at University College London working on a cross-disciplinary research programme addressing issues of justice and equality, I commissioned a researcher to prepare a report investigating this topic. Specifically, the report looks at the non-university skills gap many employers face and the routes to undertaking technical and vocational education for the over 25s in England.

The report “Routes to Opportunity – Addressing the non-university skills gap” reveals that while employers face a well-documented mid-level skills gap, established workers face barriers to upskilling and retraining to undertake medium skilled occupations.

To me it seems crazy that we’re failing to address the mid-level skills gap and failing to provide low paid workers with opportunities to upskill/retrain to improve their employment prospects and earning potential. Solving the latter will go some way to solving the former!

Other key findings of the report include:

  • Low paid workers in unskilled jobs, who would benefit most from re-training/upskilling, are often unable to do so because of insufficient opportunities and funding.
  • The welfare system does not support established workers to upskill or retrain.
  • Many potential learners are unaware of support that does exist for established workers to upskill or retrain.
  • The Brexit vote is already discouraging EU workers in medium skilled occupations from staying in the UK or moving here. Should hiring EU workers with mid-level skills become more difficult in future, this could exacerbate the problems employers currently face at least in the short to medium term.

I believe this also links to the sentiment which drove some people to vote Leave, namely those who felt (often not unfairly) they weren’t being given sufficient opportunities in education and/or employment. Leaving the EU will of course do nothing to address these problems, but that doesn’t mean that the problems don’t deserve a response.

Other EU countries are far better at providing technical and vocational education than we Brits and it’s not seen as inferior to going to university, merely a different but equally valid option. This situation has no doubt contributed to attracting EU workers with mid-level skills to come and work in the UK. Fewer people go to university in e.g. Germany, but the German workforce is more highly skilled and productive than our own. We could learn something from our European neighbours in this respect!

Unfortunately our current government is too busy in-fighting and struggling to deliver the Brexitopia some of their ministers promised, to do more than vacuously repeat the slogan “a country that works for everyone”. There’s no actual action to address genuine grievances that were aired in the EU referendum, only soundbites.

This report will be launched at a breakfast event on Wednesday 6 December 2017 in UCL’s Institute of Education.  This open access event is free of charge to attend, but if you would like to attend, please kindly register in advance.

I’m very pleased that our very own Sir Vince Cable will be speaking at the launch event. Sir Vince is one of the few heavyweight politicians who talks about non-university education; pretty much everyone else (especially the Labour party) talk almost exclusively about getting disadvantaged kids into university. That is of course a laudable aim and I don’t disagree with it, but it ignores the 60% of people who don’t go to university and does nothing to address the mid-level skills gap.

There is both a moral and economic case to solve this problem and I’m hoping that this report (with Vince’s help) will generate sufficient attention to get the political commitment needed to address the mid-level skills gap and improve opportunities for low paid workers.

* Rebecca Taylor is a member of Islington LibDems and the former MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber.

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  • Ed Shepherd 8th Nov '17 - 10:27am

    A pity that this interesting and informed article has not received more attention. Only a generation ago, hgiher education expanded with grants and tuition fees to help people enter HE at any age. Further Education courses were often subsidised and could be used by committed people to enhance their lives. Many people worked for employers who funded courses or educational opportunities. All changed now and changed for the worse. The result will be vast numbers of people stuck in deadend jobs with little chance of moving on in life. Investment on a massive scale in education is needed. Thank you for an interesting article.

  • Sue Sutherland 8th Nov '17 - 2:08pm

    This is a problem that the country has struggled with for many years because of our inability to see skills and intelligence that aren’t academic as equally valid. This has become more divisive since analysis of the Brexit vote showed that there was a correlation between education and voting. Sadly it’s often those with a higher educational level calling Brexit voters unintelligent. I would have hoped that they would have been able to think a little more subtly than that and realise that it’s the way we fail to provide training for, or indeed respect for, those whose skills don’t lead them to inhabit an ivory tower, that may well have prompted this rebellion.
    I hope your research receives the warm response it deserves, but the cynic in me isn’t holding my breath.

  • This is so important.

    The political establishment periodically convulses over Oxbridge admission policies yet they are of potential interest to only perhaps 1% of the school-leaving cohort, itself a minority of the population.

    In comparison skills training and retraining matters to almost everyone; most of us need to access such training at some point in our lives, often repeatedly as the skills we require evolve and change. Even retirees have a strong interest in the opportunities available to the young and mid-career members of their family. So, the political importance is huge.

    On top of this the economic importance is obvious yet, as Rebecca points out, mid-level skills training is neglected. In fact, it’s been neglected since at least early Victorian times making it a very long-standing blind spot of the establishment.

    To change this sorry state of affairs it helps, IMO, to think of the challenge in two ‘layers’ (which, in practice, will overlap).

    The first is to devise an institutional framework that means that everyone can access the training that they, and in most cases their employer or potential employer, think worthwhile. In other words it should be an investment decision made at the ‘coal face’, not one constrained by distant mandarins doling out cash to poorly-focused programmes.

    The second ‘layer’ is how to provide additional support beyond course costs for those that have financial commitments for family and the like.

    That’s obviously crucial for over 25s, the particular focus of this report. However, while many school-leavers have the advantage of being able to live cheaply at home, we shouldn’t blithely assume that they all can – that they all have functional and supportive families. In fact, that may well be the perfect time to tackle disadvantage that would otherwise be multi-generational.

    The first ‘layer’ is about creating an institutional framework predicated on an ‘investment’ model of training. The second is perhaps a case for additional welfare grafted onto the first layer but it will be interesting to see what the report has to say on this.

  • Access to labour markets is central to social justice and training opportunities for all are key in achieving this. My fear is that to many on this site are still wedded to the idea that the answer to poverty and inequality is a client state.
    Rebecca’s article is so important and yet the response has been indifference.

  • Rebecca,
    I’m sorry to strike a contrary note but this is yet more of our huge educational establishment pushing its importance. The reason that this thread has had so little response is that this theme has been done to death over decades.
    I contend that there is no skill shortage. Ask an employer, though, and they will stoutly claim otherwise. Did you ask any of the complainers why they didn’t just increase the salary? If they did they would be besieged by qualified applicants. But they don’t because that would upset the employment apple cart. Why can’t they poach the skills they need from some rival? Because their other employees would become jealous and claim that their own skills were just as important and that they should receive more.
    These are the true reasons why skills are poorly rewarded and are unattractive.
    I note you work in a University. Have you thought of leaving and working in a factory?
    Please reflect on why you wouldn’t. Write the reasons down. They are exactly the same reasons why so few others come forward to learn practical skills and rather look for jobs like yours.
    I have never, ever read an exhortation such as yours from someone who actually had the skills you call for. They only are penned by those who would never dream of taking up any of them.
    I was once an MD of a large company. We recruited for attitude rather than skills. We could easily train those with the right work ethic in what we needed either through in house courses (which we organised by using our own skilled staff, we called them “Subject Matter Experts) and also outside trainers.
    I changed the name of our Human Resources Department to Capability Department because their role should be to increase the capability of everyone in the team.
    I am sorry to sound critical and I am sure you mean well but the trite soundbite “invest in skills and infrastructure” is superficial piffle beloved by politicians but it can have no impact and is a distraction from the real problem which is why our small and medium enterprises don’t have the ambition to grow bigger when they could. Skill shortage is not the reason – the real reason is British culture.

  • Nonconformistradical 10th Nov '17 - 10:28am

    “I was once an MD of a large company. We recruited for attitude rather than skills. We could easily train those with the right work ethic in what we needed either through in house courses (which we organised by using our own skilled staff, we called them “Subject Matter Experts) and also outside trainers.”

    I think Palehorse is right. People with the right attitude will be motivated to learn the skills they need.

  • Rebecca Taylor 10th Nov '17 - 3:50pm

    Thanks for these comments people. I’ll try to respond to points made.

    @Sue – Important point. In e.g. Germany & Belgium, people don’t look down on non-academic training/skills. I heard that technical high schools in Germany are better equipped than grammar schools where the academic kids go. Attitudes in the UK are changing due to apprenticeships, but we’ve a long way to go.

    @Paleface – You seem to be confusing low skilled and medium skilled jobs. The labour shortage for the former, can probably be solved by just increasing wages. The report talks about medium skill jobs, i.e. those requiring education/training above A level, but below degree, typically NVQ level 4 (see:

    The construction industry lacks qualified skilled workers (carpenters, joiners, plumbers, electricians etc), not people to push wheelbarrows. Wages are rising in construction, but that doesn’t in the short term increase the number of qualified people. Long term, it can encourage people to retrain, but as the report explains, there are many barriers to established workers doing that. In the short-term, companies can poach workers, but if overall pool of skilled employees doesn’t get larger, some employers will still lose out.

    If companies, like the one you ran, recruit people with the right attitude and invest in training them up, that’s great. How would you persuade more companies to do that? The report highlights the struggle facing people wishing to retrain who aren’t supported by an employer or their own funds. What is your solution for that?

    You ask why I don’t work in a factory, there are two reasons: (1) I wouldn’t earn enough in a low skilled factory job (not the jobs addressed by this report). NB: I’ve done such roles as a student. (2) I’m not qualified to do medium skilled roles the report addresses; some may well pay similarly to my university role.

    Two lanecdotes: Four young men on a train; three were graduates in OK paid graduate jobs complaining about student debt and fourth was a carpenter. The carpenter was easily better off than his friends. He’d gone into his profession straight from school, not what the UCL report examines.

    Someone I knew from university re-trained as a plumber (self-funded) and now combines snowboarding and plumbing in the French Alps. Others like him exist, but aren’t the focus of the report.

  • ” How would you persuade more companies to do that?”
    Your proposals encourage employers to do the exact opposite. What irresponsible employers want is for the taxpayer to provide huge numbers of desperate applicants so they can keep the wages for themselves.
    “It is widely recognised that the UK has a mid-level skills gap, which means employers can struggle to recruit for medium skilled occupations”
    No it’s not. It’s a myth. The reports are compiled by the usual very junior researchers (because profs are too important to do it themselves) and they haven’t the brains (or experience) to ask the right questions. I was once seconded to the DTI so I know what low grades this sort of stuff is actually left to.
    Their little questionnaire will say to ask the industrialist “Are you short of skills?” They dutifully answer “Yes”. The next should be “How did you get on when you doubled the salary? Did you get more applicants?” The reply would be “We didn’t” and the response to that should be “Why not?”
    So I regard such studies are worthless because they are run by inexperienced juveniles, and not by gritty old leaders used to getting the truth by tough questioning.
    It’s also nonsense to claim there is a shortage of plumbers and electricians. Who told you that?Why did you believe them? I have organised two major refurbs this year at my son’s house and my own. Didn’t have the slightest problem getting plumbers or electricians, or plasterers or joiners. Lots of lads wanted the work and I was spoiled for choice. The “shortage” is pure urban myth perpetuated by those who want our problems to be fixable by a training grant.
    This “skills shortages” is classic sublimation behaviour. Put the real problems of culture, long term investment, vulnerability to foreign takeovers and simple lack of ambition in the drawer, out of sight, and propose some simple solution of a bit of training support.
    And as your own anecdote shows, individuals will rapidly source, and fund, their own training when they see a demand. The state can’t be as astute as real people and will just throw money encouraging people to waste their time (and precious public money) learning the wrong things and being disappointed when they don’t get a job.

  • What is a skill? How is accredited, maintained and supported?
    The key is accreditation.
    If you a medical doctor you are accredited by the BMA. you are required to undertake lifetime learning to stay accredited.
    Similarly if you are an electrician you are accredited by a body such as the ECA. They inspect your work on a regular basis and you are compelled to update your skills as new standards are released. If you commission a ECA accredited electrician you know that he knows what he is doing.
    Accountancy, Law, and to a lesser extent Engineering (unfortunately). all have powerful and effective accreditation bodies.
    University education is merely a shortcut to accreditation which may give you exemption from certain accreditation examinations and not an end in itself. There are normally other ways to get accreditation such as modular learning.
    I would go so far as to say if you are not in a trade regulated by and are not a member of an accreditation body, then you are unskilled.
    If we are to address any perceived skills gap then accreditation bodies aught to be the focus of our attention and a move away from universities as a primary focus for skills. For all skills, does an accreditation body exist? Is it effective in maintaining standards and developing skills? Does it ensure standards? How does it structure access to accreditation. Does it recognise equivalence from similar overseas bodies. (one for the Bexiteers there).

  • Nonconformistradical 10th Nov '17 - 5:12pm

    “I have organised two major refurbs this year at my son’s house and my own. Didn’t have the slightest problem getting plumbers or electricians, or plasterers or joiners. Lots of lads wanted the work and I was spoiled for choice. ”

    And I assume the work was done to your satisfaction – I imagine that from your career experience you can manage a project properly. But that seems not the case quite often given the number of ‘cowboy builder’ type jobs highlighted in consumer programmes on TV.

  • I am sure there will always be rogue builders, garages, solicitors etc out there, sadly. But most tradesmen work in a local area and word soon gets out so they are careful of their reputations. There are some good websites out there which carry reviews but asking around family and friends is a traditional tip but it’s the best.

  • Rebecca Taylor 24th Nov '17 - 11:54am

    @PJ – in a way a recognised qualification does a similar role to accreditation, i.e. it proves you’ve been trained with the skills X role(s) requires. Otherwise, a new employer just has your word for it/reputation of previous company (which can be sufficient, but not always).

    Interestingly, a friend who is operations director of a factory said she faced an uphill struggle to get shop floor workers to do NVQ levels 2 & 3 qualifications (paid for by the company). It’s an industry that pays decent wages and the factory is in a fairly affluent area, so I can only assume that some of those shop floor workers have never struggled to get work and didn’t see the benefit of getting recognised qualifications.

    @Palehorse – you keep saying the skills gap is a myth, but you provide no evidence for that other than your own personal view. I also don’t see why employers would claim they can’t recruit medium to highly skilled workers if they can. Of course increasing salaries for low-skilled jobs solves any recruiting problem, but for medium to higher skilled roles that doesn’t always work at least not in the short term.

    The same would apply to the nursing shortage we have (which you probably class as imaginary). The NHS could double nursing salaries tomorrow and it would in the short term make only minimal difference (via some who’ve left the profession returning) because it wouldn’t (for quite a few years; basic training is four years) increase the number of qualified nurses unless they were coming from outside the UK.

    And you still haven’t answered the basic problem the report was looking at: what do you do for a low-income worker who WANTS to upskill/retrain, but works for an employer that isn’t interested in investing in their staff and does not earn enough themselves to self-fund? Do you just say “tough, you picked the short straw in life?” or do you try to do something to provide them with opportunities?

  • Rebecca Taylor 6th Dec '17 - 2:43pm

    The report “Routes to Opportunity – Addressing the mid-level skills gap” has now been published:

    The launch event with UCL Institute of Education Director Professor Becky Francis, Vince Cable MP and Aly Colman the report author took place early this morning (Weds 6 December) at UCL.

    Please read the report & share it with others you think may find it of interest.

  • @ Rebecca Ah, the fond memories of the Institute at UCL in the 1960’s – when we weren’t having a demo outside South Africa House (Free Mandela) or the US Embassy (Vietnam) we were sitting at the feet of (the great World Cup winners) Paul Hirst and Richard Peters as our Profs and tutors….. and Basil Bernstein.

    I’ll never forget one of them saying, Basil I think, ” the process of education is that you learn more and more about less and less and when you know everything about nothing, you get a Ph.D.)

    Happy days…. we were all so young then….

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