Workplaces are forever changing. Not merely due to changing customer requirements but also through regulation, technology and automation. We are in a changing world and the COVID pandemic over the past 18 months has forced businesses to revisit their operations and commit to change. But even before the pandemic, developing the workforce was proving problematic.
Three in four employers are experiencing recruitment difficulties, changes to immigration policies following Brexit have presented further barriers, and the evident skills shortage seen across sectors is forcing companies to look at different ways to fill the skills gap. Whilst training and up-skilling existing employees is an obvious and effective solution, it can only go some of the way, and more practical solutions need to be identified and implemented.
Skill obsolescence remains a long-term risk
Bedfordshire Chamber of Commerce has over 750 members, representing in excess of 60,000 employees across all sectors in the county. Its remit to enable growth locally, regionally and nationally means that workforce development is high on the agenda. Indeed, this has been a focus for the Chamber network, who last year, as part of its People Campaign, held an inquiry into the barriers and opportunities for investment in training and development for adults over 25 from all skill levels.
Commenting on the progress report published in September 2020, British Chamber of Commerce (BCC) Co-Executive Director, Hannah Essex, said: “Employers understand the importance of developing the skills of adults in the workplace to ensure they are effective in their role and contribute to the success of the business. But we need greater flexibility in the skills system – with the right balance of formal qualifications, bite-sized training – and more agile delivery.”
This echoes the findings of a landmark skills training report, which called for a major reboot of the UK’s training system to help businesses access the skills they need to boost productivity. The report from the Workplace Training and Development Commission (WTDC), set up by the BCC, saw hundreds of companies from a wide range of sectors come together to identify solutions to a series of obstacles for employers in using the current skills system – including complexity, cost and inflexibility.
The report highlighted the need for improved trust and co-operation between all the parties involved in skills and training provision, especially at a local level, as well as help for smaller firms to invest in the skills needs of their workforce, more bite-sized flexible learning to allow people in work to gain new skills faster and a renewed focus on digital skills and innovation.
Jane Boardman, Chair of the Commission, said: “The problem of skills shortages has long hampered the UK economy, leaving employers struggling to fill job vacancies and raise productivity. The workplace is rapidly becoming more digital and automated, so businesses need more people with the technical skills for these changing jobs. But too often employers cannot access the training they need and, as a results, are spending less and less on training each year.
“The impact of the pandemic has made investing in adult skills more important than ever. Employers need a more joined-up and flexible system that can respond quickly to skills needs and opportunities. The last year has seen the economy placed under the greatest strain it has experienced in decades and the full impact on employment and growth has yet to be seen. As businesses rebuild and respond to the challenges ahead, a more agile skills training system will be crucial.”
Talent acquisition through diversity
Access to people is undoubtedly one of the biggest issues facing our business communities today. Multiple changes to the skills system, varying quality training and resources, and an evolving working environment mean that UK businesses struggle to find the right people for their teams. This is not a problem faced by businesses of any particular size or in any specific sector, but across the board. Indeed, Chamber research shows that more than 50% of companies say the time to fill a vacancy is longer than it was five years ago.
Talent acquisition is core to workforce development and will only be achieved through diversity. To nurture talent, we need to partner with the education system and businesses. A collaborative partnership will be crucial to getting results and helping UK business develop workforces fit for both today and the future.
To address these crucial issues and mitigate future risks, the Chamber network is liaising heavily with Government, businesses, academics and employees.
As a Chamber we are looking at how we can better incentivise and support businesses to invest in the development of its people. We need to examine funding opportunities, shifting the focus from full qualifications to adult learning and place-based skills, and help businesses to identify, articulate and plan their skills needs.
Turning challenge into opportunity
Innovation and talent acquisition will provide competitive advantage to companies coming out of the recent crisis. Markets will become more dynamic, and diversity, equity and inclusion will be key to long-term growth and sustainability. Skill obsolescence will remain a long-term risk. Technology will not only continue to change the way we work, but the workforce development itself. We need to stay ahead of the curve and Bedfordshire Chamber of Commerce is supporting business in the county to turn these challenges into opportunity.