As the vaccination program continues its rapid rollout and government restrictions lift, the skills sector has never been more important in helping individuals, businesses and the country as a whole bounce back from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the height of the pandemic last spring, employers were faced with difficult choices as they restructured, made redundancies or put staff on furlough to counter the strange new world we all faced.

Now, with sectors re-opening and looking to make up for lost time, business is starting to boom again. The Office for National Statistics has reported that retail footfall is at 73% of the comparable level in 2019, while KPMG and the Recruitment & Employment Confederation’s (REC) job vacancies index is accelerating at its fastest rate since 1998.

But it’s not all good news. While employers are ready to hire, they simply can’t find the right talent.

The post-pandemic skills shortage

KPMG and REC’s ‘UK Report on Jobs’ survey has revealed that that the number of people equipped with the relevant skills to fill available roles has dropped at its fastest rate since 2017.

IT & Computing and Hotel & Catering are among the sectors most heavily affected, but everyone is feeling the pinch to some degree. The end result, as Claire Warnes, Partner and Head of Education, Skills and Productivity as KPMG UK explains, is a threat to the bounce back.

“The jobs market seems to be firing on all cylinders, and we need this momentum to continue for our economy and businesses to fully bounce back.

“But the deterioration in staff supply [has] intensified… This is a worrying trend and the message is clear: we need businesses and recruiters working alongside Government to urgently address the skills gap by supporting candidates and employees to upskill and reskill to move into new roles.”

The significance of skills

The skills gap can only be properly addressed if the right tools are in place – and that’s where we in the skills sector have a critical role to play.

Whether it’s the plan for jobs, the Kickstart scheme or the increased financial incentives for hiring Apprentices, the government has already put in motion key initiatives that will help maintain the bounce back’s momentum.

Key among these is the Skills Bill, which received its second reading in the House of Lords earlier in June. The bill is a vital part of the government’s mission to level up the country and ensure that everyone has access to better-paid jobs.

The Skills Bill focuses on an employer-led approach to technical education and proposes the introduction of local skills improvement plans (LSIPS) that would help local communities establish the skills they need in their area.

Also lined up is a flexible loan, which will be available to all adults to use on training at any stage of their lives.

These proposed measures have already sparked debate and we were interested to hear the discussions about them at the AELP’s recent National Conference.

While Skills Minister Gillian Keegan was, understandably, full of praise, Shadow Minister Toby Perkins was more critical. He questioned the logic of LSIPS’ local approach when employers are more likely to understand skills gaps in their own sectors, rather than the geographical areas they operate in.

He also said that “the best thing a business can do to help the economy is hire an Apprentice”. Maybe it’s just the EPAO in us, but we can’t help but agree!

These debates will (and should!) continue. Only through rigorous discussion will the right outcome for the industry, employers and learners be reached.

But initiatives like The Skills Bill alone are not enough. We must also create opportunities through qualifications that innovate, open doors and respond to the needs of the market.

This is not only good for the country but also good business sense for the industry. The pandemic has reminded us of the importance a quick drink down the pub or a nice meal at a restaurant. It’s also underlined just how important digital skills are in our connected world. How much more difficult would the last year have been without Zoom, Google Docs and other tech innovations.

There’s an incredible opportunity for the skills sector to continue its own bounce back by providing these qualifications, as well as affording society as a whole the chance to keep its own momentum going.

It’s an opportunity we simply can’t waste.

Society is opening up, business is recovering and people up and down the country are ready to make the most out of the post-pandemic world. We here at TQUK are ready to rise to the challenge and we’re confident the sector as a whole will too!