Following the launch of the election manifestos, voters will be looking to understand exactly where each party is positioned on key issues from immigration and foreign policy to the NHS.
Yet there is one area which still needs particular attention: addressing the UK’s skills shortages. This means making sure that British businesses have the right people with the right skills in their workforce. A skilled workforce underpins our economy, and so it should be an important part of every party’s agenda.
In many ways, the UK’s labour market has never looked brighter. We are experiencing one of the strongest economic recoveries in Europe. Almost 2m new jobs have been created as business confidence and investment get back on track. Meanwhile, the percentage of the population in work is at an all-time high of 73.3 per cent.
Yet despite this, the UK’s skills shortage is still one of the biggest threats to our continuing economic growth. The truth is that our talent mismatch – the gap between the skills that companies need and those available – is one of the worst in Europe, exceeded only by Ireland, Portugal and Spain. In contrast to places like Germany, with their excellent apprenticeship and training programmes, the UK is lagging far behind. So where do the biggest problems lie? It shouldn’t be any great surprise that the most common “skills-short” professions are those in STEM areas – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Steps are being taken to address this, including significant investment in new apprenticeship programmes. However, we need to see more policies that not only boost employment figures but also focus specifically on nurturing those skills that UK businesses so clearly need. We need a three-pronged approach: education, training and skilled migration.
First, we need to join the dots between governments, schools and businesses. This means mapping out which skills are most needed and actively building these into school and university curricula. We also need to build better awareness about the excellent job opportunities that STEM courses can provide, and even look at providing financial incentives for students to study these subjects.
Apprenticeships and vocational training should be encouraged to attract young people into work and equip them with the right skills from the start. Those already in the workforce, however, must not be neglected. We need a more systematic approach to retraining older workers and upskilling existing employees for the ever-changing workplace.
Last but not least, we need to revisit our skilled migration policies. We simply cannot ignore this issue because of the political sensitivities around immigration. World class economies are based on world class talent. If Britain is to compete successfully on a global scale, British business must have unfettered access to that talent, wherever it resides. Given the UK’s skills gap, skilled migration is quite simply the only way for businesses to support immediate growth plans and fill roles that would otherwise remain vacant.
If there is one thing that all the parties have in common, it is putting long-term economic growth at the top of the agenda. As the clock ticks down to 7 May, we must recognise that this cannot happen effectively without addressing the UK skills gap. If we are to keep our place as a true economic powerhouse, we must put our skilled labour force first.