‘If we don’t act now, skills gaps will get worse before they get better’

Stephen Davies, degree apprenticeships development officer at City College Norwich. Picture: City College Norwich.

Stephen Davies, degree apprenticeships development officer at City College Norwich. Picture: City College Norwich.

City College Norwich

Businesses in virtually every sector are faced with the stubborn problem of how to fill skills gaps – and Brexit is only increasing the challenges. Stephen Davies, degree apprenticeships development officer at City College Norwich, argues apprenticeships need to be central to our response.

It is no secret that there is currently a skills shortage being felt by many sectors across the UK - and that includes us here in Norfolk.

Whether you blame this shortage on Brexit, the retreat of EU workers from the UK, or even the British education system’s inability to turn out enough young people with the correct skills, the problem remains.

Moreover, the wider question may be whether the skills gap is increasingly more of a workforce shortage as any Brexit migration would leave a smaller potential labour pool.

This would result in an even greater need for young people to be suitably work-ready from day one of their chosen careers.

Employers are frustrated that many students leaving the education system, whether as school-leavers or graduates, often lack certain key skills required to be of real value in today’s turbulent business environment – notably, softer skills and problem-solving skills.

The resurgence of apprenticeships

Several solutions may be required to conquer this current predicament and one possibility may be in the resurgence of apprenticeships.

Unfortunately, apprenticeships have suffered from some outdated associations – too often being seen as linked to a narrow range of traditional trades or just to entry level positions. That is a misperception which does not reflect the huge breadth of apprenticeships available today.

Some employers’ views of apprenticeships may also have been coloured by unhelpful past experiences – a feeling that frameworks were too long-winded or outdated, brought too much paperwork with them, or even that they did not seem directly relevant to their workplace. While the apprenticeship levy has received mixed reviews since its inception by the government in May 2017, apprenticeships are now more closely aligned than ever to your business needs and priorities.

They are an extremely valuable way for young people (and indeed older apprentices) to develop their skills and make an important contribution within the workplace.

Almost nine out of 10 apprenticeship employers say that apprentices help fill skills gaps within their organisation; two-thirds report that employing apprentices improves staff retention; and even more than this cite productivity gains.

Collaboration between education and business is key

Many agree that young people must be exposed to greater and more varied work experience opportunities.

Young people also need other forms of engagement with employers, from an earlier age, outside the constraints of an ever more academically-focused school curriculum.

Raising the profile of the best apprenticeships, and the forward-thinking employers behind them, may give more young people (and their parents) the confidence to choose the apprenticeship route, train to a higher level, and pursue career paths in areas where there are skills shortages.

Although there is no one single reason for the current skills shortage, there are several theories on how best to solve it.

Most commentators agree that collaboration and discussion between education and business are key, and anything which can strengthen those relationships should be encouraged.

After all, business, education, and of course government, should all be working towards a common end goal. The new-look apprenticeships could provide some remedy towards bridging the skills gap and supporting the growth of local businesses who are striving to retain and develop their staff for the future.

Tackling the digital skills gap

This is especially true of the new apprenticeships – linked to roles such as junior content producer, junior software developer, and digital marketer – designed to address the digital skills gap.

• Stephen Davies is degree apprenticeships development officer at City College Norwich.

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