Minding the gap: Developing the skills for a sustainable economy

To mark National Apprenticeship Week (9-13 March) David Kirkham, chief executive of Employer First, assesses the skills plight facing the drive for sustainable business.

A present and growing skills gap threatens the growth and perhaps even the future of low-carbon companies

A present and growing skills gap threatens the growth and perhaps even the future of low-carbon companies

Where have all the skills gone? 

Last autumn, the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) brought us the stunning statistic that only 13% of businesses are confident that they have the skills to successfully compete in a modern sustainable economy. Earlier in the year, the Institute for Engineering and Technology (IET) had reported that an enormous 60% of the engineering companies that they surveyed actually saw the shortage of engineers as a threat to their business. Allied to that, the IET also reported that 44% of engineering employers thought that new recruits' skill levels didn't meet reasonable expectations. 

This evidence of a present and growing skills gap which threatens the growth - and perhaps even the future - of companies reflects the experience of Employer First. In discussions about what holds engineering and manufacturing businesses back, the issues surrounding the looming skills gap due to an ageing manufacturing/engineering workforce and an under-investment in traditional manufacturing skills 15 to 20 years ago, are at the forefront of discussions. Employer First was established in April 2014 as an employer-led response to these skills issues of the low carbon sector, particularly among small and medium size enterprises (SMEs). 

The sector needs to find ways to not only replace these skills but also bring in the additional skills that are needed to support the growth in low carbon companies to meet the goals of a sustainable economy. The skills sets lacking in the low-carbon sector are the same as those reported by the IEMA more generally. The sector needs core science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills to drive the innovation which enables traditional firms to diversify and develop competitive products in response to a fast evolving market, and which in turn enables the UK economy to achieve sustainability. 

Overcoming the skills gap 

The proximity of the skills crisis has focused minds on solutions and we are finding that companies are very committed to taking action, even amongst SMEs who make up 93% of businesses in the low-carbon sector. SMEs are traditionally reluctant to invest in skills development but, for example, Employer First is finding little resistance to apprenticeships from SMEs, with engineering businesses seeming to buck the trend which suggests that uptake of apprentices is much lower in SMEs than in larger businesses. 

Having an open skills market can create confusion for the employer unless they are able to make informed decisions and many SMEs don't have this capability, as gathering information is resource intensive. Having an informed, responsive and impartial support structure is critical. 

There are three key areas which must be tackled to overcome the skills gap. Firstly, in the immediate term, ways need to be found to work effectively despite the current shortage of skills. Secondly, effort needs to be made on initiatives to close the current gap. And thirdly, real action to close future gaps needs to be implemented by seeking to inspire young people into STEM careers. 

Here's a closer look at the progress we are seeing in each of these areas. 

1) Working within the skills gap limitation 

A core tool for a company faced with skills issues is the skills diagnostic. We are encouraging our members to utilise an independent professional to analyse their companies and to identify where there are current and likely future areas of problem. Once the diagnostic has identified the skills problems, the choice for the business is basically to recruit, to provide training to existing staff or to use an apprenticeship to both recruit and train at the same time. 

In all these options we have found that small businesses in particular need specialist help. They do not have the resources to recruit in specialised sectors, and they do not have the networks to be able to access trainers to meet particular needs. As an example, one company in the biogas industry identified the need to train their staff about working in confined spaces and explosive atmospheres, they needed support from Employer First to be able to identify a skilled trainer in this area, something that as an SME they would have found particularly difficult. 

Apprenticeships have been identified by all the political parties as a core route to re-skill the young workforce and there are significant promises of more apprenticeships to shift unskilled and inexperienced young people into the skilled labour force. There are signs of difficulty in placing apprenticeships in some places but we find that, with the right support and encouragement, low carbon sector SMEs find apprenticeships a very effective route for working to mitigate current skills gaps. 

2) Working to close the current skills gap 

The Employer First delivery of an impartial skills diagnostics has uncovered two important areas in which current skills gaps can be tackled. These occur when a diagnostic reveals skills needs for which training or apprenticeship solutions are simply not available. Typically, this is driven by the innovative nature of the technology and the requirement for competencies that did not exist in the higher carbon world of 10 - or even five - years ago. 

Training providers need to be encouraged to develop training to meet new needs. Developing new courses is an expensive process and trainers need to be convinced of an ongoing demand before making the investment. Sectors which organise themselves to have organisations like Employer First that can facilitate these discussions are going to make more progress in tackling skills. 

In general, apprenticeships offer the opportunity for employers and the sector as a whole to take ownership through the reform in standards and the flow of funding. For example, the same biogas technology company wanted to start an apprentice in anaerobic digestion, only to discover that such a standard did not exist. Employer First has been able to initiate work with the wider anaerobic digestion community of businesses on a Trailblazer Apprenticeship which, when complete, will provide training standards specifically for an Anaerobic Digestion Technician. A similar Trailblazer Apprenticeship project is about to be announced in the biomass industry. 

These sound very technically specific issues but industry needs ways of solving these individual issues one by one to make progress in the overall skills battle. 

3) Working to close the future skills gap 

I have been greatly encouraged by the willingness of smaller businesses to engage with the skills issues of the low carbon industries, for example in the willingness to establish an organisation like Employer First with its broad skills remit. However, I believe that businesses large and small have yet to fully grasp where concerted industry action needs to be taken to turn the skills tide. 

This is with young people in their secondary education, particularly with girls. It is not acceptable simply to complain that the products of the education system are neither sufficiently numerous nor of sufficiently high quality. The reason people with the right skills and qualifications are not resourcing the sustainable economy from the education system is because they are not being inspired to do so. The world of industry and the inspiring engineers and scientists that work in it are largely invisible to the general public and particularly to young people. If companies don't form links with local schools and provide meaningful work experience that inspires young people into STEM careers, then we will never have the skills momentum to deliver the sustainable economy that the UK so badly needs. 


A serious skills gap needs to be tackled enthusiastically by UK industry in general and the low-carbon sector in particular. This is undertaken by making the best of the resources they have through a skills diagnostic and taking advice on training, recruitment and apprenticeships to efficiently access skills that can be available. 

New training and apprenticeships need to be developed for new technologies and companies need to collaborate actively to achieve this. Finally, all business must invest in inspiring the young people at school into STEM careers. This has been talked about for far too long. Any business that is not engaging with its future skilled workforce must face the possibility that when the day comes, they may not have a skilled workforce to find.

David Kirkham is chief executive of Employer First, a not-for-profit skills organisation for the low-carbon sector.


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