Looking back over the last five years, it’s good to see that employers have learnt an important lesson from the previous recession – and that’s the value of their staff.
Back in the early 1990s, a relatively shallow recession led to huge job losses, with unemployment hitting three million. When the recovery arrived, many employers struggled to grow as they’d let go of their skilled workers and had to recruit all over again.
But during the recent crash employers and unions went to great lengths to retain jobs. In some cases, this meant reaching tough compromises on pay and working hours. But with businesses starting to grow again, staff should soon expect to see the return of healthier pay rises.
The UK Commission’s Employer Skills Survey shows that the recovery has brought the re-emergence of skills gaps, with around one in five job vacancies going unfilled because there is a lack of local jobseekers with the right skills and experience.
Skills shortages tend to be presented as a problem for business. But they’re immensely frustrating for jobs seekers too. There are still four unemployed people for every job vacancy – and the 2.3 million unemployed people desperate for work would dearly love to have the appropriate skills so they could fill one of those posts and get back to work.
Unions, employers and government all agree on the need to fill the UK’s skills gap and it’s encouraging that more workers are receiving training, compared to two years ago. But as the UKCES survey shows, a third of employers are still neglecting to train their staff. Even amongst those employees that did receive training, companies are spending less than they did in 2011. We need to put more pressure on these companies to invest in their staff. I expect they’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results.
It’s also encouraging that despite several high-profile politicians criticising the attitude of young people, employers are positive about their experience of taking on those who have just left education. However, too few employers are recruiting directly from our schools, colleges and universities. Businesses say they need incentives to take on young people but they also need to show greater willingness to invest in younger members of staff.
We need an ambitious government policy agenda on skills. We can learn a lot from our continental neighbours – who have a much better track record in training their workforces.
The industrial partnerships proposed by UKCES would be a great way to bring together unions, employers, politicians and policy experts to deliver the right skills frameworks for key industries. These should be similar to the kind of social partnerships that already work so well across Europe.
The quality of training in the UK is often inferior to that offered in Europe – a situation that simply must improve. I’m particularly concerned about the three in ten apprentices that are paid less than the minimum wage. The government must get on top of this problem before it damages the improving apprenticeship brand.
Finally, unions have a unique role to play in encouraging individual workers to improve their skills. Our network of 30,000 learning reps are already encouraging a quarter of million workers every year to train. But there are still millions who would benefit from training and enhancing their skills. And it’s colleagues at work, often union learning reps, who are best-placed to encourage them to take that first step.