Boy and girl looking down at work in school

Unlocking pathways for a workforce fit for the future

Jane O'Leary, Sector Director for Education, provides an insight into her thoughts on reading ISG’s latest Wide Angle report, ‘Rethinking the skills conundrum’.

On reading ISG’s latest Wide Angle report, ‘Rethinking the skills conundrum’ I was struck by the simplicity yet clear untapped opportunity revealed by its primary hypothesis; the built environment – as a signal of confidence and observable employment opportunity – is a significantly underused indicator of future skills and workforce requirements.

The report draws on growing evidence that workforce factors are increasingly at the top of the checklist for organisations committing investment into the UK, with a strong skills pipeline being cited as more attractive to employers with large investment pipelines, than short term financial incentives.

So, perhaps a slightly sobering statistic to find was that there’s been a reduction in training investment per worker from UK employers between 2005 to 2019 of 28%. Given the current and increasing future skills demand, this clearly highlights a disconnect requiring redress and national alignment.

The message of better collaboration between public and private sector organisations couldn’t be clearer in the report. But again it’s the simplicity of the concept that captures my attention - early stage planning data as the catalyst for a real transformation in how we understand what skills are in demand, where and in what quantities.

However, demand-side measures alone are not the whole solution. Understanding how we perceive current and future industries and the roles available within them is an important piece of the jigsaw impacting career pathways and ultimately helping us to bridge the productivity gap.

Delivering economic growth requires a skills master planning overhaul 

I was heartened to see some of the UK’s top employers join with Government at the Business Connect-Skills for Growth conference in June, where the headline from the discussion acknowledged that ‘without skills, businesses are driving with the handbrake on’. 

Given the government’s growth plan calls out digital and technology, green industries, life sciences, advanced manufacturing and creative industries as key to the UK’s prosperity – we must have a clear pathway and roadmap to develop the required skills to continue to attract investment. Put simply, by David White of Rolls Royce in discussion with ISG’s COO Zoe Price, “If we have those skills shortages here in the UK – we’ll inevitably be forced to look overseas, because we have no other choice.”

Articulating opportunity helps pave the way 

The good news is we’re already seeing pockets of activity where industry is aligning with educational institutions to establish centres of excellence to bring businesses and future talent together. The Institute for Compound Semiconductors aims to position Cardiff as the European leader in compound semiconductor research, providing a platform where researchers and industry work together. The lab will build on existing strengths at the university, focusing on device fabrication and exploring novel growth methods and material combinations that industry can not necessarily accommodate. This example demonstrates perfectly how these bodies can work together to find solutions that solve business challenges, whilst preparing future talent with tangible experience they can take to market.

A further exemplar can be found in Bristol, which is firmly positioning itself as a heartland of creative industries. Bristol’s continued contribution to television and filmmaking was officially recognised by UNESCO recently (the UN’s educational, scientific and cultural arm) as a ‘city of film’, alongside the likes of Sydney and Rome. With a rich history for housing world-leading media; such as Aardman Animations, which found fame with Wallace and Gromit, Bristol is also home to The Bottle Yard, the biggest production facility in the West of England. With multiple film and TV crews operating in Bristol simultaneously, the demand for studio space is outpacing supply. If we take film and TV as an example – had greater coordination around planned developments taken place earlier - communicated to individuals, as well as to education and skills training providers - we could have a sustainable pipeline of appropriately skilled talent geared up and prepared for new studios to come on stream. It’s a self-fulfilling skills cycle driven by actual demand, that in turn helps to attract further inward investment. Think of this scenario for every sector in the UK and you see the real value here.

A transformation of our skills approach must be rooted in accessibility and partnership 

Breaking out of silos provides an opportunity to collaborate and increase long-term value by scaling up our efforts to align a pipeline of skills matched to opportunity. We’re already seeing this on a small scale with the hosted apprenticeship finder – but I believe this could pave the way for a national careers’ portal based on both current and future demand if linked to current opportunities as well as future planned investment.
We know that in today’s tech-enabled society, accessibility of information is critical. If you can’t provide users with what they need quickly – they will move on.  The most searchable content on Google will always be the most read. Yet when I look at our own construction industry – you may find information around careers fairs or listings on the CITB’s website, but generally we operate in silos and a fairly impenetrable structure of roles that industry outsiders would struggle to comprehend.  We’re just not great at working together to connect with talent audiences, to provide a compelling story and narrative around what it means to work in the built environment. And this means we are missing out on the talent we so desperately need too. 

How to reframe opportunities to attract and upskill learners in line with future employer needs? 

Looking to examples where this reframing approach has started to gain traction, we can see the healthcare and life sciences industry has previously struggled to communicate value and build trust. As the UK became the first country in the race to roll out a Covid vaccine, this has positioned the UK as a leader on the global stage, and our report has shown this heightened profile matched greater interest from young people in establishing a career in a sector where they see the potential to make a positive difference. 

We can conclude, it’s now more important than ever to articulate the bigger purpose behind our sectors and organisations – to lead with outcomes above processes. This will be key for sectors like nuclear, that have a key role to play in developing a sustainable energy mix. Linked to perception shifts, we need to influence the perceptions of people, positively, and sooner in the decision-making cycle. The funding for Net Zero Carbon schools as part of the Sustainable Communities for Learning programme in Wales is a great example of how learning environments are being developed to inspire young minds towards skills pathways that are based on performance and sustainable delivery, so that young peoples’ perceptions of what an industry has to offer are developed in those crucial formative years. I recently spoke on the STEM Circle Thought Leadership webinar on engineering pathways. 

How to remove barriers for existing and future talent?

ISG’s survey revealed that only 29% of young people aged 16 -24 had decided what career they wanted to pursue after their studies. When listening to Susan Raikes, Director of Learning at the Science Museum Group, reflecting on our findings, Susan pointed to research the museum conducted with academics at King's College London and UCL to measure people's engagement with science. 

In her words – “The results are pretty scary. So you can have high, medium or low science capital (interest/engagement). The research was conducted with secondary school pupils, most of whom hadn't made their GCSE choices yet, and it showed that only 5% of young people had high science capital. So only 5% of these young people were saying ‘I could build your nuclear power station, or I could be a doctor’ - only that tiny percentage has made that decision.” The majority of this 5% cohort were male and from more affluent backgrounds.

So, if we look towards our own industry, we face a similar challenge. Construction underpins our economy and society, with few sectors having such an impact on communities across the UK, or the same potential to provide large numbers of high-skilled, well-paid jobs. In fact, ISG’s research shows that 53% of young people and 63% of parents agreed that construction enabled the creation of more sustainable communities – yet there remains a gulf in knowledge on the true range of roles available in the industry.

Through a combination of better access to information on future skills demand via planning data, and enhanced understanding of the importance of redefining and telling the new stories of our sectors to new talent, the UK can be a global skills powerhouse. It’s all about confidence, whether a major infrastructure investment decision or the choice a young person makes about a skills course, but the beauty of this research is the intrinsic link between these two decisions to drive UK prosperity.

Skills shortage | ISG

Construction: the great overlooked tool in our strategic workforce planning

Our latest Wide Angle, ‘Rethinking the skills conundrum’, seeks to connect the dots between people, place and productivity. 

  • Share this article

How can we help?

Get in touch with us today using the following form:

NOTE: If you are looking to join our supply chain or for the opportunity to tender for services on one of our projects, please select 'Supply Chain' from the drop down list above to access our dedicated supply chain area, SmartSource. Please do not submit your details in this form as your enquiry will not be considered.

Please enter your details and the nature of your enquiry below.