Organisations play a key role in increasing the skill levels of the workforce which, alongside other factors, can help to improve productivity and economic prosperity. To ensure sustainable and effective talent and succession planning, organisations need to understand their current and future business needs, but also remain aware of the wider skills context and policy environment in the countries in which they operate.

This factsheet examines the nature and key aims of the UK's skills policy and explores the current skills situation in the UK, covering issues surrounding low productivity, including the provision of careers advice, the graduate labour market, and skills mismatch, among others.

CIPD viewpoint

As the professional body for HR and people development, our purpose is to champion better work and better working lives for all. To facilitate this, we work with key stakeholders to build employer demand for skills that encourage greater employee engagement and high performance working. We also support employers to design diverse workplaces that foster all employees’ skills and offer opportunities for continuous learning and development.

We work with HR professionals, government, employers, policy-makers, think tanks, trade unions and other key stakeholders to produce expert advice and guidance based on employer best practice on topics which include apprenticeships, internships, work experience and employer recruitment practices.

In today’s competitive and fast-changing world, the skills and capabilities of the workforce are vital to economic sustainability and growth. Workplace skills include the ability to:

  • communicate with others
  • write and understand reports
  • perform numerical and analytical tasks
  • use computers to help solve problems.

These skills are at the heart of how organisations function in the digital age. Other attributes, such as the ability to work well with customers and clients, and being caring and creative, are also highly valued in some jobs, although these are harder to pin down as specific skills and are often referred to as ‘soft skills’ or ‘employability’ skills.

Skills are not the same as qualifications, although they are often treated interchangeably. However, the process of gaining a qualification undoubtedly builds on and improves skills, Qualifications also provide specialist knowledge and they signal to employers a wide range of desirable attributes.. These complement the generic skills we use in the workplace but are distinct from them. Both qualifications and skills matter, as a workforce with a low level of qualifications is also one likely to have low levels of skills.

Skills are important for:

  • economic growth and prosperity - The economic prosperity of a country depends on how many people are in work and how productive they are in the workplace. Better use of skills available in the workforce alongside increased investment in skills and training, has been shown to improve productivity. Growth in productivity and prosperity build the conditions for improvements in real earnings, creating a ‘virtuous’ cycle.

  • individuals and organisations - For the individual, skills determine their employment and earning potential. For organisations, skills are vital to meeting both current and future business demands. To be successful and competitive, businesses must ensure their talent and succession planning takes into consideration what skills need to be sourced, nurtured, developed and retained now, in order to create successful and productive workforces of the future.

To tackle the UK’s underlying skills deficit it’s not enough to focus on initial education and training. The vast majority of the 2030 workforce are already in work. Employers understand the importance of investing in and improving the skill levels of employees, including on-the-job training, in-house development programmes and coaching.

Research for our recent report Making the UK's skills system world class shows that whilst the UK performs well internationally on the provision of high level qualifications with a large proportion of the workforce is educated to degree level, we record only mediocre to poor scores on most other measures. A high proportion of our workforce have poor literacy, numeracy and computer skills and evidence suggests that employers are training less and investing less in their workforces than they were two decades ago.

At the heart of addressing the UK’s low productivity level and the associated high proportion of low-skilled and low-paid jobs in the economy is the improvement of how skills are both developed and used. At the same time, we will only raise employer demand for investment in higher skills through improvements in how people are led and managed and increasing the proportion of high-performance workplaces.

Improving the productivity of the UK’s workplaces also depends on the availability of the right people with the skills that employers need. This requires ensuring young people have access to good-quality career information, advice and guidance while at school and the provision of high-quality vocational as well as academic routes into work. Read more in our report Productivity: getting the best out of people.

It could be argued that successive governments have prioritised the expansion of the high education system at the expense of further and vocational education. Indeed the OECD has identified a gap in the UK in terms of the provision of intermediate and technical level skills. Whilst the UK government has prioritised increasing the number of apprentices the overall budget for post-16 provision has experienced significant funding cuts.

Our Over-qualification and skills mismatch research has highlighted the issue of graduate over qualification, with government estimating that 45% will not earn enough to start repaying their student loans, while too few young people consider vocational routes into work such as apprenticeships. While the current Government is pushing for a bigger focus on apprenticeships, they are still often seen as a poor relation to higher education.

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) Employers Skills Survey showed that 4.3% workers are in jobs that do not fully use their skills. What's more, productivity analysis by the OECD found that average labour productivity could be increased by as much as 5% if the degree of skills mismatch in the UK was brought into line with OECD best practice levels.

The ageing workforce is another important aspect of the skills agenda in the UK. Research for our report Avoiding the demographic crunch: labour supply and the ageing workforce found that over 30% of people in employment in the UK are over the age of 50, and there are currently unlikely to be enough young people entering the labour market to replace them as they leave the workforce, taking with them their skills and experience. This needs to be addressed if these skills are to be retained within the economy for as long as possible.

Other European countries face similar challenges. Read our report Creating longer, more fulfilling working lives: employer practice in five European countries to find out about the policy frameworks and initiatives on offer to support older workers in the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany as well as the UK.

The UK’s skills policy needs to address the following challenges:

  • upgrade skill levels
  • raise the demand for skills among employers
  • improve the quality apprenticeships, further education and skills training
  • encourage better working practices with an emphasis on the development and enhancement of skills and experience at work
  • improve leadership and people management competencies.

Skills policy in the UK is devolved which means that any policy initiatives are entirely the remit of the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and only of the UK government when it comes to England.

Each of the four nations within the UK has their own skills strategy. However there are some common core themes and approaches including:

  • up-skilling the adult workforce
  • improved careers advice (for example, all age career services)
  • simplified and responsive further education and Vocational Education and Training (VET).
  • better use of skills in the workplace
  • increased demand for skills through increased employer ambition
  • targeted support for skill-development in SMEs.

The main development in skills policy in the UK recently has been the focus on apprenticeships. Apprenticeship reforms date back to 2012 and the Richards Review, which put forward recommendations to simplify the system and ‘put employers in the driving seat’. These included the development of new employer-led apprenticeship standards and reforms to apprenticeship funding. 

A key aspect of this policy has been the introduction of the apprenticeship levy in April 2017 which sees employers with a wage bill of over £3 million pay 0.5% of their total pay bill. In 2016, the CIPD surveyed 275 employers on their reactions to the levy. We found that nearly one third of organisations believed the levy would encourage them to develop an apprenticeship programme that would help them to build key skills. A similar proportion thought the levy would help them to increase the quantity of apprenticeships they offered.

However, concerns were raised that the levy may have negative un-intended consequences squeezing out training opportunities for other sections of the workforce. Our survey found that almost a third of organisations thought the levy would cause them to reduce their investment in other areas of workforce training and development. A further 22% believed it could also encourage employers to accredit training they would otherwise be running anyway as apprenticeship schemes. Interestingly, only one in five respondents thought the levy would drive up the quality of apprenticeship schemes.

The Government is also reforming technical education as result of the Sainsbury Review of Post-16 skills. The broad objectives of the reforms are to create a system that supports learners to achieve sustained skilled employment and that meets the skills needs of a changing economy. In particular, the reforms aim to streamline a complex system of overlapping qualifications into a common framework of 15 routes – or T-Levels – which group occupations together in a two-year college-based programme with a high-quality work experience placement, aligned to apprenticeship.,


Education & Skills Funding Agency

OECD - Learning for jobs

Youth Employment UK


BRITISH CHAMBERS OF COMMERCE (2014) Skills and employment manifesto . London: British Chambers of Commerce.

DEPARTMENT FOR BUSINESS, INNOVATION AND SKILLS & DEPARTENT FOR EDUCATION. (2013) Rigour and responsiveness in skills . Policy paper. London: BIS.


BISHOP, D. (2015) Small firms and the failure of national skills policies: adopting an institutional perspective. International Journal of Training and Development. Vol 19, No 1, March. pp69-80..

BUHLER, P.M. (2015) The skills gap: how organizations can respond effectively. Supervision. March. pp15-17.

JACOBS, K. (2014) A skills black hole. Human Resources. November. pp.26-33.

McGUINNESS, S. and ORTIZ, L. (2016) Skill gaps in the workplace: measurement, determinants and impacts. Industrial Relations Journal. Vol. 47 No 3, May. pp253-278.

CIPD members can use our online journals to find articles from over 300 journal titles relevant to HR.

Members and People Management subscribers can see articles on the People Management website.

This factsheet was last updated by Elizabeth Crowley.

Elizabeth Crowley

Elizabeth Crowley: Skills Adviser

Elizabeth has recently joined the CIPD as a Policy Adviser. Elizabeth is a policy and research professional with over 13 years’ experience in the employment and skills arena, having worked with both the public and private sector to develop high-quality research to inform organisational practice, public policy and shape the public debate.

Prior to joining the CIPD Elizabeth led The Work Foundation's research and policy development on the youth labour market – and has published a number of influential reports on youth unemployment. She has regularly appeared on national and regional TV and radio, including BBC Breakfast, BBC the One Show, the Today Programme and Channel 4 news. Elizabeth graduated in Sociology and has a master's degree in Social Science Research Methods, both from the University of Glasgow.

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