Skills Shortage & Preparing Youth for Futures

Addressing the skills shortage and preparing young people for their futures

How can we address skills shortages and prepare young people for flourishing future careers?

The abrupt rise of AI automation is the latest evidence of the UK labour market undergoing a transformation not seen since the industrial revolution. This time, though, it is not steam engines but digital technologies, automation, and problems like climate change. Employers, educators, and young people all acknowledge the urgency of addressing the skills gap, but bridging it is easier said than done. To yield meaningful outcomes, the rhetoric around skills strategy must be backed by solid evidence and robust, long-term planning.

What can we learn from current skills shortage trends?

For years, the Edge Foundation has been releasing regular Skills Shortages Bulletins that examine fluctuations in the UK labour market. Before exploring solutions, then, it seems sensible to define these skill areas. 

One crucial area for a sustainable future is green skills. Backed by the government, eight Chambers of Commerce across England are currently trailblazing local skills improvement plans (LSIPs) that aim to align technical skills training with specific regional needs. These include a particular focus on transitioning to net zero. Employers like Mitsubishi Electric UK are already pioneering specialized training programs to prepare workers for the widespread adoption of low-carbon tech. Despite upfront costs, embracing change can fulfil the demand for green skills while future-proofing careers and ensuring sustainable and profitable employer operations in the longer term.

The creative industries are also fundamental to the UK economy, generating £115.9 billion in 2019. Yet, the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee recently cautioned that complacency in government policy could endanger the industry’s potential amid global competition and technological advancement. The British Academy’s SHAPE Skills at Work report further emphasises the importance of social sciences, humanities, and arts subjects to the economy, explaining how they foster innovation and employability. As we battle to preserve creative subjects in schools, visionary leadership is required.

Looking ahead, the National Foundation for Educational Research has reported on the essential employment skills people will need by 2035. Skills Imperative 2035 predicts significant changes and job losses ahead. However, it also notes that technological advancements and a need for improved social service provision will present opportunities. Higher-skilled jobs and healthcare roles, in particular, are expected to offset millions of jobs displaced by automation and artificial intelligence.

Drawing lessons from the past

While understanding 21st-century skill needs is one part of the puzzle, resolving the skills gap requires informed planning. Even before recent economic shocks, UK skills policy has been blighted by short-term thinking and poor policy memory. Both have limited the success of interventions intended to address the skills gap.

To resolve this, Edge has conducted research on past policy successes and failures. Assessing previous policies, our Learning from the Past series aims to inform future strategy while avoiding past pitfalls. During my tenure at the Department for Education, I was actively involved in developing policies such as 14-19 Diplomas and can attest to the value of learning from policy history. Rather than reinventing the wheel, doing so can help us adapt past best practice for present challenges. Furthermore, past policies are often abandoned for political rather than practical reasons, meaning many still have real value for present and future needs.

Addressing the confidence gap

Concerningly, further research from Edge reveals a lack of confidence among young people aged 14-18 regarding the employability and life skills they have gained through school. The research highlights that they require assistance not just in acquiring these skills but recognising and articulating them. Part of the issue is a lack of data on the outcomes associated with employability skills. The Department of Education’s new interactive educational outcomes dashboard may have promise here.

Tracking longitudinal educational outcomes (LEO) data for 3.6m individuals who completed GCSEs in England between 2002 and 2007, the dashboard allows users to drill down by socioeconomic, demographic, and educational factors. It remains to be seen exactly how it will be used, but it has strong potential for legitimising skills currently poorly assessed or understood. It could empower students to comprehend and showcase their skills, elevating their confidence and employability.

The role of work experience and intermediaries

The benefit of work experience for young people is also well-documented. Shifts towards remote working since the pandemic, however, have made finding suitable placements challenging. The current skills landscape can also be bewildering, making it difficult for businesses to coordinate and effectively participate in work experience.

This is where intermediaries such as Education Business Partnerships (EBPs) can play a vital role. Unfortunately, in these tough economic times, EBPs face drastic funding cuts. That’s why Edge has recently supported EBPs such as B&E Together and The Switch, which bring young people – especially those from deprived areas – together with businesses like HSBC, while providing interview mentoring and support to help young people transition into work. Facilitating between businesses and education, EBPs can streamline opportunities for young individuals while catering to the needs of local industry.

Although these are just some potential ways of building youth skills, one thing is clear – our current approach is lacking. Highlighting existing skills gaps and learning from past policies is the first step. However, we should also be mindful of young people’s confidence, individual aspirations, and regional and sector-specific needs. One-size-fits-all will no longer suffice. But embracing new approaches to pedagogy and assessment, and utilizing the collaborative efforts of EBPs, we can bridge the skills gap in ways that works for young people, the economy and society as a whole.

Olly Newton is the Executive Director of the Edge Foundation.