Whichever way you look at it, the UK is a nation of learners. In 2016/17, there were 2.3m people studying at UK higher education institutions, and the Department for Education says 19 per cent of adults are currently engaged in some sort of learning. In the workplace, however, the question of skills and qualifications is a lot less clear-cut. In fact, it seems British workers have too many skills for their jobs – and it could cost us all dearly.
A CIPD report – Over-skilled and underused: Investigating the untapped potential of UK skills – found more than a third (37 per cent) of employees have the skills to deal with more demanding duties than their job requires, compared with just 12 per cent who lack some of the skills they need.
Employers struggling to fill skilled roles will despair at the findings, but being overskilled is no walk in the park either. The CIPD found only half (53 per cent) of overskilled workers are satisfied with their job, compared with 74 per cent whose skills are well-matched to their roles.
The findings mirror those of the most recent biennial UK Employer Skills Survey, which discovered 35 per cent of employers had staff who were underutilised last year because they were trained or qualified to a level above what their role required, up from 30 per cent in 2015.
Although overskilled workers are not necessarily over-qualified – they could simply have outgrown their roles or seen elements of their jobs chipped away by automation – other research has pinned skills mismatches at least partially on the high number of graduates. The 2017 Taylor Review discovered the proportion of graduates working in low-skilled jobs had increased from 5.3 per cent in 2008 to 8.1 per cent in 2016.
“The pool of highly skilled jobs is not growing as fast as the proportion of graduates with a comprehensive education, so those graduates tend to end up in jobs below their skill level,” says Dr Thomas Roulet, senior lecturer in organisation theory at Cambridge Judge Business School. “And if firms can get an overskilled workforce for the same price, why would they not do so?”
Lizzie Crowley, skills policy advisor at the CIPD, stresses that while the problem of overskilling is not limited exclusively to graduates, “it could be argued that overskilling among graduates is more of an issue given the considerable investment in education by both individuals and government”.
The CIPD report suggests employers may be using degrees as a filter. Almost a third (30 per cent) of those who say a higher-level degree is required for their job also admit a lower level of qualification would suffice. Perhaps counter-intuitively, 14 per cent of graduates felt underskilled for the job they had landed.
“If the UK is to be competitive we need to improve our productivity through better transitions from education into work,” says Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Institute of Student Employers. “More work on skills and careers in schools and increased employer engagement in education through mechanisms such as the apprentice levy will help.”
Naeema Pasha, director of careers at Henley Business School, adds that her discussions with graduate employers suggest they are often being pragmatic. “They are very positive about what graduates offer to their organisation but they recognise that some enter doing lower-level jobs, partly to start working out the culture and job needs and even just to learn about, and form working relationships with, everyone in the company,” she says.
Some industries fare worse than others in the overskilling stakes. The CIPD found those in lower-wage industries, such as retail, transport and communications, and hospitality, were more likely to report they were poorly matched for their job and could be taking on more.
Brexit could also spell bad news for employers who need lower-skilled workers. Although a white paper on post-Brexit immigration is not due until later this year, and a bill containing the measures will not arrive until next year, the government has announced it intends to use a scheme that prioritises high-skilled workers.
Roulet says the degree of job mismatches post-Brexit will depend heavily on what happens to the pool of high-skilled roles. “If this shrinks because of an adverse economic impact, then high-skilled workers will have to take low-skilled jobs left vacant by a restrictive immigration policy,” he says.
In the meantime, what are employers with untapped skills to do? Auditing the talent you really have in your organisation is a starting point. And Roulet recommends giving staff the opportunity to do something beyond their day-to-day.
“Organisations could consider reserving parts of the week for employees to work autonomously on projects of their own, in a similar way to what technology companies do to promote corporate entrepreneurship,” he says. “If those employees are in low-skilled jobs, it’s likely they will have enough time beyond their job to do some out-of-the-box thinking, and work on more rewarding projects of their own.”
Professor Randall S. Peterson, academic director of the Leadership Institute at London Business School, agrees businesses could overcome the problem by allowing a bit more give to what roles require.
“Rather than being able to trade one part of their job for something else they prefer to do, or is more suited to their skills, employers define jobs too rigidly, making it highly unlikely to find the one person on the planet who might perfectly fit that job,” he says. “Far better to allow for some flexibility in job responsibilities and allow people to customise their jobs a bit, making for more engaged employees.”
Ultimately, adds Crowley, organisations that don’t take the issue seriously will pay the price. Overskilling might seem like a hidden problem, but it will soon begin to bite: “Overskilled staff are less satisfied with their jobs and more likely to quit. If organisations are committed to better staff engagement and retention, it’s critical they look for ways to put their employees’ skills to better use.”