Improved technical education has the potential to narrow the UK’s technical skill gap, but Government intervention and employer awareness are critical to its success.

The situation

The skills and capabilities of the workforce are vital to economic sustainability and growth. But while the UK has a high proportion of degree-qualified individuals, there is a substantial gap to other countries in intermediate technical skills, with the OECD ranking the UK 24th out of 33 nations. This has serious implications for productivity as the UK faces a chronic shortage of technician-level skills.

Furthermore, young people seeking to develop their technical and vocational skills face a confusing array of qualifications, many of which are not linked to the needs of employers. To help address these issues, the government is introducing new T Level qualifications to provide a vocational pathway for young people to learn technical skills as an alternative to A Levels.

However, CIPD research in 2018 found that only four in ten employers had heard of T Levels and their planned implementation, highlighting the need for significant further communication and engagement with organisations on this critical issue. Unless employers recognise and value T levels, it will prove difficult to persuade young people to take these new qualifications.

CIPD viewpoint

The UK has a highly skilled workforce, with 42% of the population educated to degree level or above. However, many graduates end up in non-graduate jobs, with OECD data showing the UK as having one of the highest rates of over-qualification internationally.

Meanwhile, the UK system is inadequate at providing intermediate and technical skills, with technical, post-secondary awards accounting for only 2% of qualifications gained. This evidence suggests that the UK has over-expanded its higher education system, relative to demand, and there is a clear need to strengthen alternative routes and provide a better balance between vocational and technical skills and academic qualifications.

Currently, the non-academic route is over-complex, fragmented, and difficult to navigate, with over 13,000 different qualifications, many of which fail to provide individuals with the skills they need for the 21st century. In recognition of these challenges, the technical education route is being reformed in England, with new employer-led T-Level qualifications being developed to streamline the existing system and to provide a vocational pathway for young people to learn technical skills as an alternative to A Levels. The first T Levels are being rolled out in in 2020, with all qualifications across 15 pathways available by 2023.

Overall, the CIPD is supportive of the regime and has conducted research showing that employers are also highly supportive of the reforms in principle, viewing them as potentially beneficial for young people’s employability.

However, there are hurdles to overcome if these qualifications are to prove successful. In particular, it’s essential that employers are aware of and engaged with the reforms. Work placement by employers is a key component of successful delivery, as is employers’ recognition of the value and opportunity provided by this new source of talent.

But the CIPD’s survey of 2,000 employers found that only 40% had heard of T Levels and their planned implementation. In addition, the majority of employers said that the 45-day work placement (315 hours) would not be feasible, while others said they could provide them but only if there was financial support to do so. The CIPD welcomes the launch of the Employer Support Fund pilot to test whether financial support can increase the number of industry placements offered.

Actions for Government

  • Create an awareness-raising campaign for T Levels targeting employers.

  • Ensure employability or essential skills are embedded in a consistent manner across all T-Level routes.

  • Make adequate coordination, support and guidance available for employers to help them get ready to offer T-Level work placements.

  • Consider whether financial incentives may be appropriate to increase employer engagement with work placements, particularly for SMEs.

Recommendations for employers

  • Provide high-quality work experience placements to help young people build their understanding of the world of work and their essential skills.

  • Review recruitment practices to ensure that managers are not using a degree as a screening process when recruiting for jobs that don’t require a university education.

  • Work with schools and colleges to build more routes into work for young people, including school leaver programmes, T-Level students, traineeships and apprenticeships.

CIPD resources and references

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