Addressing the skills gap

According to the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), 52% of employers could not fill their graduate positions in 2016[i]. This is despite more than 300,000 graduates entering the job market that year. The AGR puts this down to a skills gap, commenting that while “employers don’t expect new hires to be 100% work ready on day one” there are clearly some skills which, if graduates can demonstrate, will enhance their employability a great deal.

It appears from the AGR survey that the skills gap is most pronounced in relation to the attributes referred to as “dealing with conflict”, “managing up” and “negotiating and influencing”. The skills which may be viewed as more traditional, such as ability to work in a team and problem-solving seem to be less of an issue. Whilst the AGR survey is not focussed on business or accounting students in particular, as an educator in that subject area I agree that a skills gap exists. I also perceive that when students begin to apply for placement or graduate jobs they often dismiss the issue of their lacking in skills as being a hindrance to securing a good position. They often think that technical knowledge is enough. From my own perspective, based on many conversations with professional bodies and graduate employers, I would add “being proactive”, “emotional intelligence”, “critical reasoning” and “resilience” to the list of skills in short supply.

There are many issues for educators to consider, not least is whether the aforementioned skills should be termed skills at all. Are they better described as personal qualities or behaviours? How are they defined, and how do they relate to each other? Should a degree programme aim to develop these attributes and if so, how should they be embedded into teaching and learning? How, if at all, can some or all of them be assessed?

The ICAEW has its own view on desirable employability skills and personal attributes[ii] and how students can develop them, recommending that students self-evaluate using a SWOT analysis to help identify the skills or attributes which need to be enhanced. In my experience students are quite self-aware once they have been through a couple of recruitment rounds; they know their own shortcomings, but they struggle to know what actions to take to address these. Perhaps this is where as educators we have a role to play, as we are well-positioned to provide our students with strategies to both identify and respond to their strengths and weaknesses. Innovative learning and teaching methods, for example using business simulations in the classroom can go a long way to combine the teaching of technical material with the development of ‘skills’ (or whatever we feel is the most appropriate term).

An article on skills which was published in Economia in 2015[iii] commented that “there seems to be a growing sense that academic qualifications are ever less reliable predictors of career success in the increasingly complex, dynamic, global and technology-enabled world of employment”. The value of academic qualifications will surely be enhanced by a greater emphasis on addressing the skills gap and producing graduates who are valued in the workplace for their personal attributes as well as their technical competence. As an academic community we should encourage debate on the skills gap, specifically evaluating our role as educators. Only once we have agreed that skills development is something we can and should address as one aspect of our curriculum design, can we then move on to consider which skills we can develop and how this can be achieved.







  • An interesting article Lisa - thank you.

    I agree about the skills gap and it's one that pervades the entire profession to an extent. Your comment that some students "think that technical knowledge is enough" could apply to a number of fellow members - classic Peter Principle stuff!

    I also think that some employers don't always clearly define the soft skills they say they require - eg 'strong personal skills' - so no wonder there are gaps out there, whether real or perceived.

    As for your call for a debate on educators' role in skills development, it seems this is supported by the recent Taylor Review. One of its recommendations is that "Government should use its convening power to bring together employers and the education sector to develop a consistent strategic approach to employability and lifelong learning….As part of this, the Government should seek to develop a unified framework of employability skills and encourage stakeholders to use this framework." (page 87)