Britain’s growing skills shortage is anything but a soft problem

Fri 06 Feb 2015

Blog - By Nick Isles, Deputy Principal, Milton Keynes College.

I had a significant sense of déjà vu this week on hearing the news that a new campaign is being launched involving some serious heavyweights from industry and education, aimed at improving Britain’s so-called soft skills.  Long-term readers of these blogs (heartfelt thanks and sincerest congratulations for your intellectual stamina) may recall a piece I wrote in November 2013 entitled, Why hairdressers are in demand at IBM ( ).  The essential point was that skills around communication (including not just talking but listening), team-working, entrepreneurialism, time-management and problem-solving were often more important to prospective employers than academic achievement.  Fourteen months later, they still are, and there is evidence that the gap is widening between what the nation’s workforce has and what it needs. 

We have McDonalds to thank for a piece of research which shows that soft skills are currently worth £88 billion pounds to the UK economy and that that figure will rise to £109 billion in the next five years.  The company is the motive force behind the campaign along with folk like Barclays and the Association of Colleges.  The campaign (which can be found at is focused on awareness-raising but also intends to publish a series of recommendations by the end of this year.

The problem with these so-important attributes is that they are very difficult to quantify.  Lord Young, the Prime Minister’s Enterprise Advisor, came up with an interesting idea in his Enterprise for All report last year, suggesting young people could have an Enterprise Passport, detailing for employers the training they have had in this area.  However, in reality, I suspect most job applicants are assessed on these skills quite unconsciously at interview.  We meet people and decide if they are likely to be good at talking and listening, if they’ll turn up or finish jobs on time and if they’ll be easy for everyone else to get on with.  Whatever is written about them by others is probably secondary.

At Milton Keynes College the importance we invest in these skills is probably best illustrated in places like The Brasserie and The Graduate Salon.  Open to the public but staffed, under professional supervision, by students, young people learn on-the-job, not just how to cook or cut hair but how to deal with people and behave in an employable way.

It seems then that everyone from government to education to business recognises there are things young people need to know to be effective at work.  We all agree that more effort needs to be put into the teaching and learning of these skills and that they are prized by employers and customers as highly as academic or vocational expertise.  So why is there still a mismatch between the skills acquired and the requirement for them?  The answer is far from simple but there are quite clear ways in which the situation can be improved.  For a start, let’s get rid of that “soft” word everyone keeps using.  If we described these skills as “Employment Critical Skills,” or “Fundamental Workplace Skills,” and formally incorporated them into courses, teachers and students would all have to take them more seriously.  Secondly, if students were graded on their employability in a nationally-recognised way, understood by those interviewing them for jobs, it would be easier for businesses to make a clear distinction between candidates.  Those applying for work would themselves more readily appreciate their value and strive to improve.  The fact is that these are abilities which everyone needs - unless of course they aspire to being a lighthouse keeper, for which there are not many vacancies.

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