The skills gap has been a longstanding issue in British industry and one of the most significant drivers behind the problem has been a lack of training. Yet, the issue stretches beyond a lack of training opportunities for those seeking employment.
However, with unemployment on the rise and thousands more people likely to be looking for retraining opportunities to move into new sectors as more jobs are lost, the UK is entering a critical time in which it can and must broadly address the issue or be met by a wave of unemployment with many of those looking for work left deprived of the skills that they need.
A City & Guilds report released back in February this year, prior to the Covid-19 lockdown, laid bare the lack of training for those already in employment, which has only fuelled the skills shortfall.
The report, titled Missing Millions, polled 5,000 people of working age. It showed that a third of those interviewed had received no workplace training over the last five years, while 15 per cent of the 5,000 had never received workplace training while in employment.
Based on the data, City & Guilds estimates that roughly 17.8 million people in the UK have an outdated skill-set, and their potential contributions to society are lost as a result.
Had this issue been addressed prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, then the swathes of people set to become unemployed would have been better equipped to re-enter a competitive job market with reduced opportunities by possessing a more up to date skill-set.
The need for specialist skills in today’s job market has also been emphasised by Nick Langley, founder of Stockport-based business, Audio Schemes.
The firm is specialised in the very technical skill of constructing and soundproofing studio spaces for post-production, television and radio, and has worked with household names in the past such as Sony and Warner Bros.
Writing in The Parliamentary Review about the importance of specialist skills in his profession, Langley said: “Making all of this great work possible is our staff of 15, who encompass many different talents. The team is comprised of a mechanical engineer, overseeing all ventilation and air conditioning work; two joiners, who undertake bespoke fabric fittings; and a number of dry liners who have served us for many years.
“People with these specialist skills need to be trusted to use them as a collective. It’s a highly skilled sector – for instance, the process of learning to fabric line walls can take up to four years to become proficient in.
"Issues commonly arise during projects and the team need an intricate knowledge of their trade in order to rectify them. A completed soundproofed wall may look good to the eye but in terms of performance, it could still emit too much noise beyond the client request. For cases like these, there needs to be an understanding of what works and what doesn’t."
With experienced labour ‘on tap’ not an option in many specialist sectors, but plenty of people joining the unemployment line who are ready and willing to learn new skills to find sustainable employment, addressing the gap in apprenticeships and in workplace training could be an ideal start to addressing recruitment woes and bringing unemployment down.
While Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called for new targeted support to replace the furlough scheme which lapses in October and preserve existing jobs, he believes that a new “national plan for jobs” can be made to invest in skills and trade to enhance the prospects of those who do become unemployed.
Speaking to the Trades Union Congress annual conference through Zoom while self-isolating at home earlier this week, Sir Keir said: "We all know the furlough scheme can't go on as it is forever, but the truth is the virus is still with us and infections are increasing.
"It just isn't possible to get back to work or reopen businesses. It isn't a choice. It's the cold reality of this crisis. So, it makes no sense at all for the government to pull support away now in one fell swoop."
He called on ministers to hold urgent talks with Labour, trade unions and businesses and use “a bit of imagination” in generating new “targeted support” to replace the furlough scheme and “develop those sectors where it is most needed”.
Sir Keir said: "Imagine how powerful it would be if we all shared a national plan to protect jobs, create new ones and invest in skills and trade.
"I'm making an open offer to the prime minister: work with us to keep millions of people in work, work with the trade unions, work with businesses and do everything possible to protect jobs and deliver for workers. My door is open."
What is for certain is that whichever course of action ministers ultimately choose to take, the lack of training opportunities for the employed and unemployed must be addressed to truly tackle the skills gap conundrum and curb unemployment.