The skills gap challenge

18815942_xxl agendaNi considers the key trends and data for skills shortages in Northern Ireland and the reluctance among employers to recruit young people leaving the education system.

Skills deficiencies are putting Northern Ireland’s economic recovery at risk, according to the results from the most recent UK Commission for Employment and Skills Employer Skills Survey. The commission is an industry-led public body which advises government and businesses on skills policy and its survey is published every two years.

While the sample size in 2013 was not directly comparable with its 2011 predecessor, responses indicated that the number of vacancies in Northern Ireland had decreased in contrast to increases (and therefore stronger recoveries) in Scotland and England. Wales performed similarly to Northern Ireland.

Fewer employers were directly recruiting people from the education system. That said, most who did so “found the recruits to be well or very well prepared for work.”

The 2013 Employer Skills Survey involved 4,014 telephone interviews with organisations in Northern Ireland and 1,028 follow-up interviews to discuss their training spend.

Nineteen per cent of vacancies were due to a skills shortage. This proportion varied across the region from 15 per cent in Belfast to 30 per cent in the North West and 36 per cent in the Southern area. Skills shortage vacancies were also more common in manufacturing (22 per cent), construction (24 per cent) and hotels and restaurants (33 per cent).

Fourteen per cent of employers have skills shortages – a proportion which rose to 17 per cent in Belfast and 19 per cent in public administration, hotels and restaurants.

While in some situations, an employee may not have sufficient skills to carry out the job, in others the employee has the potential to take on a greater challenge but the opportunity is not available. A significant minority of staff – 19 per cent overall and 24 per cent in Belfast – have skills and qualifications which are more advanced than those required for their current role.

The proportion of employers providing training (63 per cent) was only slightly lower than the UK figure (66 per cent). Training was most common in electricity, gas and other utilities (76 per cent), followed closely by health and social services (74 per cent) and public administration (73 per cent). This reflects the rapid pace of change in health and energy and also the generalist and wide-ranging nature of the Civil Service’s work. Staff training was least common in agriculture (27 per cent) and manufacturing (50 per cent).

While 54 per cent of employers had recruited new staff in the last two or three years, only 34 per cent had recruited a young person (aged under 25). A school, college or university leaver was much more likely to find work with a larger employer than a smaller one. Young people tended to lose out as they lacked skills, experience or a professional attitude.

UKCES also identified a number of high performance working practices which could tackle skills gaps. The most common responses were increased training activity and supervision of employees, more appraisals and performance reviews, mentoring or buddying schemes, and reallocating work to other members of staff.

Largest gaps: employees

1. Team working

2. Technical, practical or job-specific skills

3. Planning and organisation

4. Problem solving

5. Customer handling

Largest gaps: applicants

1. Technical, practical or job-specific skills

2. Planning and organisation

3. Problem solving

4. Team working

5. Oral communication

Main causes of gaps

1. Staff are new to their role

2. Lack of motivation

3. Trained but performance has not improved sufficiently

4. Training only partially completed

5. New working practices introduced

Main impacts on business

1. Increased workload for other staff

2. Difficulties in introducing new working practices

3. Difficulties in meeting quality standards

4. Higher operating costs

5. Delays in developing new products or services

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