The UK Government has pledged to put employers at the heart of the further education (FE) and training system, and last year set out a programme of reforms to achieve this ambition in its Skills for Jobs White paper. Given that skills policy in England is going through another period of upheaval, it seems like a sensible time to take stock of employers’ views of the skills system.

To shine a light on the opportunities and barriers to this reform agenda, we recently published the results from our employers’ skills policy survey which polled over 2,000 senior decision makers. The findings highlight a number of challenges that will need to be addressed if the reforms are to succeed, these include:

  1. Low level of employer engagement with colleges

    The survey found that just one-in-five (19%) employers sourced external training from Further Education Institutions. The results also revealed that just one-third rated colleges as effective at meeting current skills needs and one-quarter rated them as effective at meeting future skills needs. This highlights a considerable barrier to the success of the Government’s ambition to put employers at the heart of the FE system.

    Yet, those that do engage with the sector have much more positive views: 67% of employers who source external training from the FE sector rate them as effective in meeting current skills needs compared to just 24% of those who don’t.

    These findings emphasise the need to raise awareness and share examples of the positive impact that FE institutions can play in developing workforce skills if the reforms are to be successful.
  2. Low awareness of technical education reforms

    T Level qualifications are a new technical study programme designed to sit alongside apprenticeships and A levels. Awareness amongst employers of the new technical qualifications is relatively low, with just 46% of employers reporting that they had heard of T Levels prior to being surveyed, it is concerning that this is only slightly above the figure of 40% when we last polled employers in 2018. Of those who had heard of them, the majority rated their level of knowledge of the new qualifications as fairly poor (51%) or very poor (15%).
  3. Too many employers are unaware of their skills gaps and people management issues

    Perhaps the biggest challenge to putting employers at the heart of the FE system is that too many employers – particularly SMEs – are not aware of their skills gaps and people management issues and so don’t take action to invest in the skills they need. The survey found that SMEs tend to overestimate their grasp of skills-related issues, too few had a strategic approach to skills, and most had not undertaken work to understand skills requirements or put a plan in to address gaps and shortfalls.
  4. The need to build employer capacity to engage

    The survey evidence underlines that critical needs builds organisational capability to understand, plan and address skills challenges. This is a particular challenge for SMEs who are more likely to lack the people management and leadership skills needed to take a strategic approach to skills in their organisations. This emphasises the need for integrated people management and business support to help smaller organisations to prepare for the future and build their capacity to engage with, and benefit from, skills policy interventions.

CIPD research also suggests

CIPD research suggests that the provision of high-quality HR support to small firms at a local level that are embedded through key partnerships such as Local Enterprise Partnerships, Chambers of Commerce and local authorities has the potential to reach large numbers of employers, make a material difference to owner-manager confidence and capability, and over time help to increase productivity and skills investment. This type of integrated business and people management support could be delivered at a local level to build SME capacity to engage in skills-based interventions.

About the author

Lizzie Crowley, Senior Policy Adviser - Skills

Lizzie is a policy and research professional with over 13 years’ experience in the employment and skills arena, having worked with both the public and private sector to develop high-quality research to inform organisational practice, public policy and shape the public debate.

Prior to joining the CIPD Lizzie led The Work Foundation's research and policy development on the youth labour market – and has published a number of influential reports on youth unemployment. She has regularly appeared on national and regional TV and radio, including BBC Breakfast, BBC the One Show, the Today Programme and Channel 4 news. Lizzie graduated in Sociology and has a master's degree in Social Science Research Methods, both from the University of Glasgow.

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