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Skills gap to worsen by 2035, research suggests

HR leaders need to equip employees with the skills they need in the future, argued OnTrack International's representative - ©FAHMI/Adobe Stock

Up to 7 million workers in England may lack the essential skills to do their jobs by the year 2035, research conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has revealed.

Publicising its findings this morning (13 June), NFER researchers found that the proportion of workers in England that lack the skills needed for their job may increase from 13% of workers (3.7 million people) in 2023 to 22% (7 million) in 2035, unless urgent action is taken.

The NFER defines essential skills as communication, collaboration, problem-solving, organising, planning and prioritising work, creative thinking and information literacy.

For Charlotte Gregson, country head UK of the talent marketplace Malt, the widening skills gap is concerning, and could be attributed to the changing world of work.

Speaking to HR magazine, Gregson said: “It all comes down to the pace of change, not only with technology but with how businesses are equipped to navigate all the uncertain challenges they face.”

But for Paul Heath, head of client solutions at learning and development consultancy OnTrack International, the NFER's findings aren’t new. Heath told HR magazine: “Employers have warned about widening skills gaps for some years, so these latest figures, while disappointing, come as little surprise.

“Many business leaders want to grow now, but do not know which skills will still be relevant for their employees in the future. This uncertainty is leading to hesitation.

“There is an opportunity to learn from current skills gap trends and prepare employees with the skills they need now that will also be critical in the future.”

Read more: Employees need new or better skills, say HR professionals

According to the NFER, the vast majority (90%) of new jobs that are to be created in England up until 2035 will be in professional occupations such as scientists and engineers, roles that require higher levels of proficiency. This suggests that skills gaps are likely to become more pronounced and problematic in these sectors.

On this, Gregson explained: “Upskilling within the STEM sector is particularly difficult as these are highly specialised areas. Therefore, learning and development can’t start in the workplace; it warrants training at an earlier level, in higher education and even secondary education.”

To address the future skills gap problem, Heath advised HR leaders to focus on fostering transferable skills within their organisations: “Business leaders and HR executives can develop leadership skills focused on collaboration and connection, and instil transferable skills such as critical thinking, emotional intelligence and relationship building,” he recommended.

He also suggested that HR adopt the latest learning and development methods and techniques, and blend the best of live learning, learning content and eLearning.

Julie-Ann Keeble, HR director at recruitment firm LHH, told HR magazine that employers should identify where skills gaps are likely to happen in the future, and align this with employees' career development.

Keeble told HR magazine: “Once gaps and any future risks have been identified, work with employees to provide training and opportunities for growth in line with the current and projected skills gaps. This should be conducted through open conversations around employees’ career aspirations, pushing people to become ‘career activists’ and take ownership of the direction in which they plan to develop their skillset and career.”

Read more: How can quiet hiring help to tackle skills shortages?

Speaking to HR magazine, Jude Hillary, NFER’s co-head of UK policy and practice, said: “HR leaders play an important part in aligning employers’ and workers’ perspectives to ensure our workforce has future-fit skills. They also play a vital role in ensuring practices, such as regular performance reviews and extended job descriptions are implemented, and that line managers are equipped with the right training and support they need to effectively fulfil their vital role in unlocking and fully utilising latent skills in their organisation’s workforce.

“One of our recommendations is that employers should consider what more they can do to align expectations and skills assessments between managers and workers, as well as how they can best support line managers to identify and utilise the ‘latent’ essential employment skills of their workers.”

The NFER’s Rethinking skills gaps and solutions paper is the latest to be published as part of a research programme funded by the Nuffield Foundation. Analysis was conducted by National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), whose team analysed around 12,000 responses to a survey from which data was gathered last summer and autumn.

Respondents’ skill levels were approximated from their self-reported behaviours. Skills requirements were approximated from the level and importance of each skill that respondents perceived to be required to fulfil their jobs.