Does work experience hold the key to the UK's skills gap?

26th January 2018

This week, we learned from the latest labour market statistics that there are a record number of people in work across the UK, up 0.8% from 2016 and the highest on record since the 1970s. However, despite a growth in employment the UK continues to face a significant skills gap.

Numerous reports, research, and warnings continue to capture headlines - with many organisations and businesses citing the need to more effectively prepare the workforce for employers’ changing needs. As the economy continues to develop and grow, organisations of all sizes should look for ways to adapt and plan for how they will secure the skills they need for the future.

The Government’s Industrial Strategy highlights the UK will require a regular and constant flow of high quality graduates to power the economy. It also recognises that the talent needs of many organisations are not currently being met. The key to bridging the UK skills gap is myriad and complex, but quality work experience which enables talented students to gain workplace skills and contribute to the labour market more quickly, is one vital part of the solution.

Why work experience?

Quality work experience delivers a range of important benefits both the student and the employer. Students who undertake work experience while they are still in education, gain hands-on experience and develop much needed employability skills before leaving education. Upon graduation, having had experience of using their knowledge in the workplace, students can more seamlessly transition into employment, armed with the skills and understanding businesses need.

An employer offering quality work experience opportunities gives young people a chance to apply themselves to work, and an opportunity to develop skills relevant to their chosen industry.

Spotlight on STEM

The skills gap in the UK is perhaps most pertinent for employers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The rate of technological change and an increased need for engineers to service the future economy, means STEM subjects at degree level have had an increased focus.

However, a recent report from the National Audit Office found there is a skills mismatch, with many STEM graduates being underemployed despite an increase in demand. The report highlighted evidence that young people graduating with STEM degrees don’t always have the employability skills they need to enter the workforce.

It is critical that STEM talent is developed in a cohesive way to reduce underemployment and to help close the country’s skills gap. By recognising the value of work experience, and to allow students to build the necessary employability skills while still at university, employers can begin to develop work-ready STEM graduates and build a fully-rounded future workforce.

Needs of the future

The pace of technological advancements across all industries however, means there is uncertainty around the skills the UK will need for the future. Those currently in education are going to be working in an environment potentially very different to today, with a different set of skills. Deloitte’s Power Up: UK skills report points out the opportunities for employers to recognise the value of transferable skills in order for workers to effectively stay in employment, and offer their skills to the economy. At Placer, we see the value of work experience in ensuring young people are getting the real-world experience of employers’ needs and expectations to be equipped with the soft and transferable skills necessary. Connecting more employers with students for quality work experience is key to making this happen.

Work experience forms a key part of the solution to the UK’s skills gap, by enabling the development of the UK’s future skills, in its future employees. For university students, work experience even in the form of day or week opportunities, can help to inspire the next generation of workers to acquire the skills the economy needs.

If you’re an employer looking to offer work experience, or you already do, sign-up to Placer 

David Docherty is Chairman of Placer and CEO of the National Centre for Universities and Businesses (NCUB).

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