Written by Paul

In May of 2021, the UK government announced its Skills and post-16 Education Bill to drive vital reforms needed to further education, and to ensure that those in post-16 education are developing the right skills for future employment. This joins other skills reforms in the wake of Covid-19, including the Skills for Jobs whitepaper published in January this year, as a positive and proactive effort to ensure that skills are at the fore of government policy, and to ensure the skills market is in a strong position to support a post-covid and post-brexit UK economy.

The Skills and post-16 Education Bill in particular focusses on the link between education and local employers to ensure that the prominent skills needs of the local area are addressed – the intention being (through making it a legal requirement for employers and colleges collaborate to develop skills plans) that employer will have a seat at the table when it comes to post-16 education in their local area.

All this may sound familiar, and that is because we have been here before. The apprenticeship reforms of 2015 were designed to increase employer input and ownership of apprenticeships. In reality what occurred was an under-representation of SME businesses, with the trailblazer groups being led to meet the needs of larger employers and resulting in apprenticeship standards that were unworkable for many employers.

So how will the latest reforms be different and, more importantly, how can we learn from previous attempts to ensure that this time around, we are able to address the skills gaps facing today’s employers?


Correct engagement with SME businesses

According to the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), SME’s account for three fifths of the employment and around half the turnover in the UK private sector. This shows that SME businesses are crucial to the economy, and by definition the biggest sector affected by current and future skills gaps. It is important that SME businesses fully engage with local colleges to define the skills plans for their local area, and it is on both parties to make sure that this occurs. One of the major issues with the apprenticeship trailblazers was their visibility to smaller employers, but also the dedication shown by smaller employers to engage with the trailblazer groups. Therefore, FE colleges need to ensure they are doing their upmost to make engagement opportunities as visible and attractive to SME businesses in their local area as possible – and for SME’s to take the opportunity to fully engage with colleges to have their say.

SME’s need to fully understand their skills needs

Being presented with the opportunity to engage with local conversations about skills needs is all well and good, but if you don’t fully understand your skills requirements, how effective will your engagement be? Local employers need to make sure they fully understand their current skills needs, as well as having a clearer understanding of future skills needs.

Future skills needs can be recognised by identifying the future direction of the business, and having an understanding of the external influences that will impact upon skills – think emerging technologies or market directions.

Current skills needs (i.e., skills required for the business over the next 12-18 months) can often be more difficult to define – experience shows there is often a disconnect between the business ideals and the actual skill levels of employees. The best way to define this – and an important action to complete before engaging with local skills reform – is to carry out a skills gap analysis within your business. This will give you clarity around where you believe skill levels should be, and what levels they are at in your current employee group – the skills gap. Once this gap is known, you input to local skill groups will be fully informed, and representative of the needs of your business and employees.

Fully buy in to skills development

Businesses need to make sure that their efforts are not limited to the initial engagement around local skills needs, but that it goes further to ensure their business is fully bought in to ongoing skills development for their employees. Where skills gaps are identified, businesses need to ensure they have a means of filling that gap – formal training, apprenticeships, on-the-job training or mentoring are all ways of doing so, but the business will need to make sure they have the structures in place around these to ensure they ae done so effectively. Having structured approaches to employee development (as well as career progression) is also an effective way of attracting talent to your business, giving you further scope to deal with current and future skills gaps. Ongoing skills development should be one of the core values of your business – if you really buy into this value then not only will your business perform better, but the attraction of talent becomes easier.


Seeing that government is placing real focus on education and skills for work is extremely encouraging. For many industries, skills gaps are evident not just locally but nationally, so a concerted effort to deal with this is welcomed. As employers, we need to make sure that we take this opportunity to have our voices heard, and that we fully inform ourselves of the current and future skills needs of our business, and empower our employees to do something about it.


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