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Filling the skills gap

Employers in the UK and elsewhere are currently facing a latent skills gap. Throughout the recession, especially in technical areas such as engineering, manufacturing and design, businesses were of course letting people go and recruiting fewer employees. But once the economy started to improve, so did the jobs market. As a result, we’ve been seeing large-scale demand increase significantly across all sectors within the last year.

If we take the STEM (science, technology, engineering and manufacturing) industries, for example, according to recent predictions, there will be 2.5m openings over the next decade in engineering companies alone. We’re currently looking to recruit some 87,000 engineers a year in the UK, yet we have an ageing population and a lack of graduates and apprenticeships to fill these roles.

We’re also seeing significant growth in the automotive sector, through the rebalancing of success in the industry and large-scale plant investment, which has a knock-on effect on general manufacturing. Furthermore, there has also been a large-scale expansion of the food and beverage market, particularly in the UK, as a result of more diverse nutritional needs and a growing population.

Skills gap

It’s a self-fulfilling problem. Even without the economy changing, we don’t have enough technical staff and employers all want the best talent. This skills shortage isn’t just a concern at entry level, but also at mid-manager level. And it is likely to hit senior management fairly soon.

When you’re striving for innovation and change, you’re often looking for new ideas and new skills. However, where there is a shortage of skills, people tend to look elsewhere. More businesses are bringing in people from other sectors, knowing there is a similarity in technology and an understanding of the process rather than the product.

If you look at innovation more generally, employees have been coming out of traditionally high-performing, lean manufacturing environments such as the automotive industry and moving into chemical processing, food manufacturing and even financial services. People from pharmaceutical and regulatory environments have also been brought into the food industry because of the growing importance of hygiene and quality standards.

Efficiency drive

Essentially, we’re witnessing lots of cross-pollination, especially in the UK. It’s about trying to make processes more efficient. Often, this enables businesses to make large-scale improvements and save money by streamlining their processes.

To attract and retain the best staff, businesses must do a better job of selling career opportunities to potential employees. They also need to use social media and online channels to better place their unique proposition. People want an evolving career rather than a job and employers need to respond to this.

Employers must demonstrate that they have a comprehensive career development programme that provides clarity on employees’ career paths, which includes everything from quarterly reviews to further education, multi-skilling, adaptability and flexible working.

Youth and experience

Many businesses are addressing the skills gaps by trying to multi-skill staff, bringing in interim people, looking overseas and creating more apprenticeships. The British government wants to double the number of apprenticeships, which is fantastic news for the UK engineering and manufacturing industry. In my opinion, talented young people can be trained just as well through an apprenticeship as they can through a graduate programme.

Finally, we have an ageing population. When often people look to the new generation, we have a large number of talented professionals at the latter stages of their careers who are often undervalued. We have a real opportunity to harness their invaluable skills and experience, which could be critical if we are to address the skills gaps in the short term.

Jason Saunders is regional director for recruitment specialist Michael Page. He has more than 20 years’ experience in recruitment in the UK and internationally.

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