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Embracing a changing skills landscape

The Covid-19 pandemic has created a skills paradox for employers. Whilst 63% have ceased filling vacant roles due to the pandemic, 56% of organisations continue to experience skills shortages.

Research from The Open University’s latest Business Barometer shows that employers have increased their spending to £6.6bn in the last 12 months to plug short term skills gaps. And £1.2bn has been spent on temporary staff.

The Open University recently brought together experts to discuss skills development across the UK looking at insights from its Business Barometer data.

The webinar, called Embracing a changing skills landscape included Viren Patel, Director – Business Development Unit, The Open University, business leader Anthony Impey MBE, Maria Bell, Managing Director, Mesomorphic and Julia Game, SkillsBuild Reignite Programme Lead – Europe, IBM. The webinar was hosted by Martin Couzins, Founder of Insights Media.

Key insights from the Business Barometer

Opening the webinar, Viren provided some background on The Open University’s Business Barometer research, which has been produced annually since 2017. The research helps business leaders understand the skills landscape across the UK as a whole and also by sector and region.

“The research provides the UK government and policy makers with insight on what is happening with skills. It highlights the cost of the skills gap and also puts the spotlight on a number of businesses that are forward thinking and proactive in developing skills,” says Viren.

Anthony suggested that an expanding talent pool would potentially be the answer to filling skills gaps. “I was very surprised by some of the data we collected because you would expect skills shortages to reduce when the supply of talent increases. That is not happening during this recession because the economic fallout from the pandemic is affecting different parts of the economy and different parts of the workforce very differently,” he says.

The research shows that some sectors have been hit harder than others, such as hospitality and tourism. It is this uneven impact that has had a knock-on effect on skills.

The economic fallout from the pandemic is very unevenly spread, which means the pool of talent you would expect to be refilling all of these skills shortages doesn’t have the skills that organisations need.

Anthony Impey MBE, business leader

Supporting jobseekers and small business owners

Technology provider IBM is one employer that is helping to support businesses and individuals develop their skills. Working with The Open University’s OpenLearn platform, and other partners, IBM provides resources on a range of topics, from digital skills, strategy and new ways of working to financial and legal advice through its SkillsBuild Reignite platform.

The initiative is part of of IBM’s strategy is to support a more inclusive society by investing in skills and reskilling in the digital era. Julia says this type of collaborative initiative will help the UK accelerate skills development.

“When larger businesses come together to support smaller businesses, job seekers and entrepreneurs, we will be able to move the economy forward far faster than if we were to go it alone by sharing our skill set,” she says. IBM also works with The Open University to develop management, leadership and digital professionals through degree apprenticeships.

Apprenticeships and their role in recovery

The panel also discussed another key approach to developing skills – apprenticeships. The Business Barometer data shows a mixed picture. On the down side, apprentices are being furloughed and made redundant but on the upside organisations are saying that apprenticeships are going to play a key role in their recovery. Nearly six in 10 employers say they expect to hire more apprentices in the next 12 months.

Mesomorphic, a software development company in the Shetlands, currently employs two graduate apprentices who are studying software development through The Open University. As a company that has geographic challenges when attracting new talent, apprenticeships have proved to be an effective way to develop homegrown talent.  

Maria says the apprentices benefit the company in several ways. “Our graduates are not only learning the skills of their apprenticeship, software development, but they are also learning about other parts of the company such as marketing and finance,” she says.

There are other benefits too. As a mentor to her apprentices, Maria has developed her own management and leadership skills.

Maria says apprentices are a big commitment for small companies, but worth it, helping them grow the skills they need. “Whilst there is a huge time commitment, I think apprenticeships are going to play a key role in the recovery. I’m hoping that at Mesomorphic we will be able to take on more apprentices next year.”

Looking forward

Viren agrees that investment in skills has to be at the heart of the post-pandemic recovery.  Rather than reducing headcount, organisations should be looking to retrain people to fill skills gaps.  

The debate should be about how organisations can repurpose and retrain their staff in those areas where they are lacking in skills. You have to look at the opportunity cost of not developing staff. If you do not train your staff you spend money elsewhere in buying in staff. This is a huge expense for the economy.

Viren Patel, Director – Business Development Unit, The Open University

You can watch the full webinar here

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