Developing sustainable education to mitigate skills shortages

In light of several sectors struggling to recruit, Alice Barnard explains how these issues can be solved through upskilling and training

Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

One emerging theme from The Edge Foundation’s skills shortage bulletins is that of sustainable education and the future skills that workers will need in an unpredictable and fast-changing world.

Defining tomorrow’s essential skills

New technologies, demographic shifts and environmental change are rapidly reshaping the jobs market. Evidence-based skills strategies are therefore necessary to ensure that the workforce is prepared. In support of this goal, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) is conducting a five-year research programme into essential future skills.

Already, NFER has explored what the world of work will look like in 2035, identifying several likely growth areas. These include the sciences, digital, information and communication, education, and health and social care. Meanwhile, manufacturing, production, retail, and administrative sectors look set to decline. NFER’s report also highlights in-demand future skills, including analytical and interpersonal skills, self-management and emotional intelligence. Policymakers should use this evidence base to start planning and delivering effective future strategies.

Time to boost basic skills

However, a focus on future skills should not overshadow the fact that more than five million adults in England currently have low basic numeracy and literacy. As employers seek future-focused cognitive and problem-solving skills, basic skills must also be prioritised. The Learning and Work Institute (LWI) has conducted research into the importance of, and current trends in, essential skills, their funding, and what works best to boost participation in training.

LWI’s report, Getting the basics right, highlights the social stigma associated with poor literacy, numeracy and language skills, and the need to proactively reach out and identify adults who need help. Recommendations include better recruitment support and taster courses tailored to individual needs. Employers must also help identify models that bring literacy, numeracy, ESOL and digital skills to the heart of their long-term training and developent plans.

Green skills for construction

One sector that contributes substantial carbon emissions is construction. Greening this sector is therefore critical to delivering a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. New research from Edge and the University of Oxford maps the skills required for a greener construction industry to the wider education and training landscape.

One key finding is the need to broaden our concept of ‘green’ skills. Policymakers tend to focus on new technologies and associated STEM expertise. However, green skills also incorporates communication, digital, creative and general business know-how, and sustainability-orientated dispositions. Crucially, these must be embedded into a new CPD culture with training structures as well as incentives for SMEs and micro-businesses. The full report has much more detail on all these issues.

Other critical future sectors

Narratives around future skills often focus on green industries like renewable energy and climate change mitigation. However, the UK’s most vital industries, from food production to health and social care, are also threatened by skills shortages and high staff turnover. A new City & Guilds report highlights the top concerns among potential recruits in these sectors, including low pay, inflexible working conditions and poor progression opportunities.

There are currently 170,000 job postings in the health and social care sector, for instance, with an additional 226,441 expected by 2026. Research suggests that the main reason deterring people from applying for jobs in this sector is that they feel they lack relevant skills, experience or qualifications. Interestingly, however, 80 per cent of existing social care workers are proud of their job, one of the highest percentages of any sector. Through improved training, salaries and working conditions, we must elevate these critical roles to avoid a worsening recruitment crisis.

Innovative approaches to recruitment

Amid challenges, the latest bulletin also showcases some innovative approaches to bridging skills gaps. South Yorkshire Region Education and Careers (SYREC) is inspiring a new generation of young people into health and social care. SYREC believes that young people cannot aspire to jobs they cannot name. Its schools engagement team, therefore, uses targeted outreach – workshops, teaching resources, social media and employer projects – to inform young people about health and social care roles.

From primary to secondary, SYREC has leveraged the cultural shift to online working to increase equality of access to opportunities for all young people. While relatively fresh, the project has been very well-received and could be easily adapted to other sectors facing similar obstacles.

Sustainable education is a complex beast, but while it poses challenges, it also presents a clear window of opportunity. Now is our best chance to create a resilient workforce that is ready for the future, whatever it holds.

Alice Barnard is chief executive of the Edge Foundation