The Leaders Council forum: Workforce Of The Future

NovaCast apprenticeships
Apprenticeships seem like the obvious answer but there are issues to be addressed.

On the 4th April 2023, a small group of business leaders, including Richard Phillips, MD at NovaCast, met at the Caledonian Club in London. The forum was convened by The Leaders Council to discuss how the workforce has changed over the past few years and the resultant opportunities and challenges. There was a specific emphasis on apprenticeships and the connection between education and industry.

This round table was the beginning of a discussion involving relevant figures in parliament and Whitehall with the ultimate objective of creating a dialogue between policy makers and the people their policies affect.

The key points to emerge from the discussion were as follows:

The root causes of the skills shortage

Most participants had experienced difficulties hiring staff with some having turned down work due to lack of staff to fulfil the orders. There was a strong feeling that the situation will deteriorate in the coming years with many skilled workers within 10 years of retirement age. Many of these could leave the industry without passing on their skills to a younger generation.

Root causes suggested for this situation were the education system, the decline in manual industries, and employers not doing enough to promote their companies or industries to would-be employees. It was agreed that these factors interact with one another to make the overall skills shortage worse. It was pointed out that other countries have a clear objective to build a manufacturing base, but we don’t in the UK.

The link between education and industry

It was felt that there was no link between skill shortages and the skills that people were currently learning with ‘fashionable jobs’ being over-subscribed while other industries found it impossible to find suitable staff. It was felt, for example, that there is too much focus on IT, and too much focus on getting students into university, rather than practical teaching and apprenticeships.

It was felt that this focus extended into the tertiary education sector with universities receiving the lion’s share of attention in the media, with colleges often overlooked.

The workforce ten years from now

The decline in manual trades in education may be about to become even more of an issue. With the potential threats and opportunities inherent in AI looming large on the horizon, it was pointed out that skilled manual jobs that require dexterity, are less at risk from AI than white collar roles. Despite this threat, attendees were not concerned about the threats of AI and more focused on the opportunities. It was felt that the jobs at risk would tend to be the repetitive, less engaging and, therefore, less attractive ones which would stimulate opportunities in more interesting roles.

Apprenticeships as a route to learning a trade

Given all that had been discussed, it seems that good quality apprenticeships are the obvious answer. It was argued that apprenticeships should provide a clear route for learning a trade but that this was not playing out as most smaller firms were unable to pay a living wage to apprentices. This in turn results in candidates opting to go into retail or other low-skill jobs. This trend is evident in recent Department for Education data which reveals that 47% of people drop out of apprenticeships before completing them.

Ways to make trades more attractive

It was agreed that the way forwards must be to pull candidates towards trades by making them more attractive. It was felt that engineering is considered low status and that the definition of an engineer is too broad with insufficient understanding of the diversity within the field and the rewards available. Even trades where there is a better understanding of the work involved, such as plumbing or electrical engineering, don’t seem to register very highly with younger people as a career option. It was suggested that a way forwards in these trades may be to appeal to the entrepreneurial spirit as they are a good way into running an independent business.

Language barriers

Discussion in this area was prompted by the suggestion that newly arriving refugees and immigrants could be encouraged into the trades although there were concerns around language skills. It was pointed out that in other countries, Germany for example, new arrivals are provided with extensive language lessons where needed – something that seems lacking in this country.

The value of dialogue

Richard Phillips was positive about the discussion within the round table meeting as well as its objectives; he commented “It was great to be involved in this kind of event. I found it interesting to hear from business leaders from other industries and to understand that the challenges we face are very similar to those faced in other un-related industries. I feel very strongly that these are issues that policy makers in this country must take seriously, and address directly with initiatives that help companies to address the skills shortages many of us are facing.”

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