Improved technical education in the UK has the potential to narrow the technical skill gap, but government intervention and employer awareness are critical to its success.
The skills and capabilities of the workforce are vital to economic sustainability and growth. But while the UK has a high proportion of degree-qualified individuals, there is a substantial gap to other countries in intermediate technical skills, with the OECD ranking the UK 24th out of 33 nations. This has serious implications for productivity as the UK faces a chronic shortage of technician-level skills.
Furthermore, young people seeking to develop their technical and vocational skills face a confusing array of qualifications, many of which are not linked to the needs of employers. To help address these issues, the government has introduced new T Level qualifications to provide a vocational pathway for young people to learn technical skills as an alternative to A Levels.
However, CIPD research in 2022 found that less than half of employers had heard of T Levels and less than one in five were planning to host a T Level industry placement. This highlights the need for significant further communication and engagement with organisations on this critical issue. Unless employers recognise and value T Levels, it will prove difficult to persuade young people to take these new qualifications.
The UK has a highly skilled workforce, with 42% of the population educated to degree level or above. However, many graduates end up in non-graduate jobs, with recent CIPD research highlighting the over a third of graduates feel over-qualfied for their current role.
Meanwhile, the UK system is inadequate at providing intermediate and technical skills, with technical, post-secondary awards accounting for only 2% of qualifications gained. This evidence suggests that the UK has over-expanded its higher education system, relative to demand, and there is a clear need to strengthen alternative routes and provide a better balance between vocational and technical skills and academic qualifications.
Further, it has been recognised that the non-academic route is over-complex, fragmented, and difficult for individuals and employers to navigate. In recognition of these challenges, the technical education route has been reformed in England, with new employer-led T Level qualifications developed to streamline the existing system and to provide a vocational pathway for young people to learn technical skills as an alternative to A Levels. The first T Levels launched in in 2020 with all qualifications across 15 pathways available in 2023.
Overall, the CIPD is supportive of the regime and has conducted research showing that employers are also highly supportive of the reforms in principle, viewing them as potentially beneficial for young people’s employability.
However, there are hurdles to overcome if these qualifications are to prove successful. In particular, it’s essential that employers are aware of and engaged with the new pathway. A substantial industry placement with an employer is a key component of successful delivery, as is employers’ recognition of the value and opportunity provided by this new source of talent.
But the CIPD’s survey of 2,000 UK employers found that only 46% had heard of T Levels and less than one in five were planning to, or were currently, hosting an industry placement. In addition, the majority of employersreported that there were cost related barriers to hosting placements, with planning and preparation time as well as staff time to mentor and supervise being of most concern. The CIPD welcomes the decision to continue to provide temporary financial assistance via the Employer Support Fund however further ongoing support should be considered particularly for smaller employers.
- Ongoing efforts targeting employers are needed to build awareness of T Levels.
- Ensure employability or essential skills are embedded in a consistent manner across all T Level routes.
- Consider whether longer-term financial incentives may be needed to increase employer engagement with industry placements, particularly for SMEs.
- Provide high-quality industry placements to help young people build their understanding of the world of work and their essential skills.
- Review recruitment practices to ensure that managers are not using a degree as a screening process when recruiting for jobs that don’t require a university education.
- Work with schools and colleges to build more routes into work for young people, including school leaver programmes, T Level students and apprenticeships.
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