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How Do You Solve the Problem of A Future Skills Gap?

  • 17 June 2022
  • By Steven Spier

This blog was written by Professor Steven Spier, Vice-Chancellor, Kingston University.

What skills will a fast-growing and innovative company like TikTok need in a few years’ time? The answer is both surprising and revealing – it doesn’t yet know. 

They will not necessarily be technical. As a senior executive from TikTok told a roundtable hosted by Kingston University recently, it was every bit as likely their ever-evolving business needs would require marketing know-how as much as expertise in algorithms.

The point here is that businesses from all sectors and at all stages of development need to recruit people with a very particular skill set, which we call skills for innovation. Companies want employees who are adaptable problem-solvers, creative, who think critically and communicate well, and who can work with people from other disciplines or professions. We know this because we’ve asked them, twice.

With the help of YouGov, we surveyed more than 2,000 senior decision-makers in a representative sample of firms across the UK, both this year and last. Respondents were asked which skills from a long list of options they thought should be developed to ensure the UK remained competitive during the next two decades.

The results of this year’s survey broadly confirm those of the initial survey, with problem-solving the most valued skill for innovation. And, while digital and analytical skills both performed strongly, they were again challenged by more general qualities of adaptability and creativity – underlining how acutely aware firms are that they will need a resilient workforce able to respond to rapid change. 

At Kingston University, we have started a national conversation about these future skills and whether the courses that teach them are explicitly are sufficiently valued by the Government and regulators, given their importance to the economy. Moving that conversation, with the Government and businesses, to explore how to teach these future skills to every student and employee, is the next step. 

At Kingston University, with a course portfolio that is almost wholly professional and technical, we have committed to ensuring they are taught in every course in every year and we hope the sector will follow suit. A more sophisticated measure of graduate attainment that gives proper value to entrepreneurship and start-ups remains imperative.

This agenda, however, is far greater. We know that future skills provision needs to be available not just once, as part of a traditional three-year degree course, but throughout people’s careers.

It is increasingly clear that the world of work is changing rapidly. The pandemic has accelerated profound shifts in the labour market, posing challenges to businesses and the state alike. People will enter professions that will change significantly during their working lives. Entire professions will disappear and new ones will appear. People will have portfolio careers. 

The full consequences of Brexit are still playing out, but it is apparent there will be an increased emphasis on increasing the supply of homegrown talent to meet labour shortages.

It is telling that securing and retaining global talent has outstripped competition from emerging economies like China as the primary concern of UK business in our annual survey of the factors needed to keep Britain competitive.

For those in Government, there is a worrying increase in the numbers of workers dropping out of the labour market later in life. This is a trend that has consequences for the tax base on which public services depend, but also for those deemed ‘economically inactive’ – many of them people who have much more to give.

So how can the higher education sector, Government and businesses work together to make lifelong learning deliver future-proofed skills provision?

Thankfully, there is already a good model that demonstrates just how this sort of collaboration delivers. The Creative Industries Council was set up to lower the barriers to growth, such as access to finance and export markets, regulation, intellectual property and, crucially, skills.

By working with universities and firms and across Government departments, the Government is helping guarantee a talent pipeline that will ensure this booming sector remains a major motor of the UK economy.   

Critical to the success of the Council is its structure. It is co-chaired by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and has set the standard for cross-departmental working.

To achieve the change business and employees need, we need to establish a Future Skills Council based on a similar model, with Education and Business Secretaries as co-chairs. Such a body would focus on how to solve the workforce skills challenge and the roles of government, industry and education can each play. Positioning the Higher and Further Education Minister in both departments would further underline this commitment to skills delivery.

Keeping the UK competitive through the next few decades will require the same problem-solving skills that businesses say they want from those they recruit, alongside productive collaboration between the Government, universities and businesses. So let’s practise what we preach – and truly innovate.

Read more about Kingston’s #FutureSkills report and recommendations here.

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