In March 2011, the Wolf Report highlighted a particular problem with young people taking poor quality vocational courses that lack currency in the labour market.
The Leitch Review of Skills (2006) initiated a process of change, moving from a skills sector centrally planned by training providers and skills funders into one led by employer demand. However, challenges remain. Employers continue to report skills gaps and local and regional imbalances in skill levels. Spatial concentrations of low skills have become more glaring in the current economic climate; as have local concentrations of high unemployment, in particular for young adults. Against this back drop, a growing body of commentators is arguing that the skills problems we face are related not only to skill supply but also to poor skills utilisation.
The Skills Dilemma: skills under-utilisation and low-wage work, released this week by the Work Foundation, is the latest contribution. It warns that the under-use of skills in the UK is resulting in lost productivity both for businesses and the economy as a whole. It argues that this trend could partly explain why the UK is lagging behind comparable countries in terms of labour productivity, despite efforts to improve the skills of its workforce.
The report shows that the problem is especially prevalent at the lower end of the labour market, where jobs too often provide little autonomy, progression or support. For employers, under-use of skills can be a waste of a valuable asset; it can result in a less motivated workforce, which may also be less productive. From the employee’s point of view, under-use of skills means little autonomy, responsibility or progression, along with the frustration of knowing one’s skills is going to waste.
The Skills Dilemma calls for wider recognition of the matter and urges policymakers to implement measures to begin tackling the problem. Among the report’s chief recommendations is the implementation of measures aimed at promoting better job design. It also recommends the establishment of a workplace innovation fund that could provide small-scale funding for skills utilisation projects and support for employers taking steps to address the issue.
This call for skills utilisation needs to be taken more seriously by policy makers. In particular, the report’s contention that any approach to skills utilisation must ‘take into account a holistic understanding of skills’ is one I completely endorse. I also agree with the emphasis in the report on the need for workplaces that provide meaningful encouragement, opportunity and support for employees to use their skills effectively. NIACE’s record of work that champions expansive workplaces and learning through work underlines this.
In the current climate, the likelihood of agencies taking up the ideas in The Skills Dilemma is hard to gauge. But as the report points out, a skills utilisation approach does at least carry the win-win promise of enhancing the employer’s bottom line and enabling workers to fulfil their potential.