Focusing on further education is the key to combating the skills shortage

Forget universities – HR should be forging relationships with colleges to access the talent they need for the future, argues Ian Pretty

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Official statistics are telling us what we already know to be true: there are fewer people with the skills we need for the jobs we have. UK jobs market figures show unemployment has dropped to levels not seen since the mid-1970s. According to the Office for National Statistics, the increase in economic inactivity – the reason for low levels of unemployment – is because of ill-health and an exodus of workers aged between 50 and 64 years

Analysts claim the drop in unemployment from 3.8 per cent to 3.6 per cent for May to July 2022 – its lowest level since 1974 – shows signs that the labour market is losing its momentum and that tightness in the labour market could lead to further inflation-linked pay claims, worsening the cost of living crisis. 

With this backdrop, it’s easy to understand why many HR professionals share a growing concern about recruiting good-quality, highly skilled candidates. However, all HR professionals need to do is look to the further education colleges across the UK that are regularly turning out well-educated, well-rounded graduates who are ‘job ready’. 

Understanding further education

It is incumbent upon HR professionals everywhere to understand and appreciate the knowledge and skills that people with level 4/5 qualifications have. Further education includes post-secondary school education and study (level 4/5) that is distinct from the higher education (level 6) offered at universities and other academic institutions. Level 4/5 refers to a certain skills level, including qualifications such as apprenticeships, technical education, HNCs, foundation degrees and the first two years of an undergraduate degree. 

Level 4/5 qualifications are important because they help people whose highest qualification is level 3 (A-level, T-level or BTEC) to develop their skills and increase their employability. As the UK labour market changes – largely because of technological advancements – many people will need to reskill and/or upskill. 

Across the UK, skills shortages are being felt most acutely in the industries serviced by level 4/5 skills and qualifications – including engineering, construction, digital and health and social care. Invariably, these are practical skills, taught to a very high standard, that ensure job readiness and job effectiveness. 

Collab Group research among its member colleges shows that these colleges have qualified teachers who teach ‘in demand’ skills to an industry standard. They also offer smaller than average class sizes, which increases the amount of direct teaching time and access to specialised equipment, leading to better outcomes. Additionally, they tend to recruit from the local area and offer a more supportive learning environment, which means learners get what they need, when they need it, and are more likely to graduate. 

All of this leads to a rich educational and social experience that helps learners to develop the essential people skills needed in the fast-changing future world of work. These colleges are playing a vital role in combating the current, and future, skills shortage and are developing a rich pool of talent for HR professionals to select from.  

How can HR access this talent pool?

In addition to understanding the skills and knowledge gained from further education, HR professionals must reject the existing narrative that universities produce the best graduates and most promising future employees. 

Further education colleges offer learners a rich and diverse experience that give people the knowledge, skills and experiences to be successful in the future world of work. They also offer the right solutions for the UK’s current, and impending, skills and economic growth challenges. 

It is also essential that HR professionals broker and build relationships with colleges around the UK. This will enable them to gain direct access to a deep pool of rich talent and build a talent pipeline that satisfies short and long-term recruitment needs. 

Ian Pretty is chief executive of Collab Group