Over the past few weeks, it has been hard to escape the news about job vacancies reaching record highs across many industries and the tirade of policy experts keen to give their opinion on the matter.

Interestingly, it appears that no one can make up their mind on what this means. Is it the start of a new high-wage economy with a booming labour market or the start of something much worse – with gaping skills shortages leading to broken supply chains, resulting in empty shelves and sending the cost of living spiralling upwards?   

We’re all aware of the shortages making the headlines – including HGV drivers, fruit pickers and farm workers – with calls for ‘fast track training’ and ‘visa reform’. But such solutions will only fix part of the problem; we need to remember that these shortages have been plaguing education providers for years.    

It’s very easy for commentators and politicians to say ‘just train the domestic workforce’ – but it must be recognised that to do this, we need to find the experts to do the training.  

Colleges, including my own, have struggled for some time to recruit high quality, vocational lecturers. In the current climate of skilled workers being in such short supply, there is little motivation for many of these experts to move into teaching, when the financial rewards of working in their industry are so much greater.  

Of course, those of us working in education know and understand that the rewards of teaching are wide-ranging, if not economically superior. But with teaching salaries being frozen in real terms and those of FE staff already being considerably lower than their school counterparts – we are reaching a precipice of potential disaster that is becoming critical.   

Government and businesses need to develop a longer-term vision that recognises the risks of not having enough or indeed, the right, staff to train the future workforce.  

Employers across most industries are struggling to recruit the staff and skills they need, from hospitality and healthcare to digital and construction. It is inevitable that businesses will struggle to remain profitable if they can’t access the skilled workforce needed to deliver services – and this absolutely includes FE Colleges. 

The phrase ‘Levelling Up’ has been high on the Party Conference agendas over the last few weeks. Further Education represents this concept completely – giving people of all ages and from all backgrounds the opportunity to improve their life chances. So, if any Government is genuinely serious about this proposal, surely all FE staff would be top of the list? Without the dual professional, our teachers and mentors to deliver skills and knowledge, the whole concept of social mobility and aspiration will come to a grinding halt.

Skills gaps within the education sector is a serious problem as it will inevitably lead to a reduction in our capacity to train people. If we can’t train people, skills gaps across other industries will continue to grow rapidly.  

There is no possible argument that can hold against the benefits of investing in education. Every political party knows the importance of this when developing a manifesto. Higher levels of education on average lead to lower employment rates along with higher wages. One extensive study from the University of Illinois* estimated that the difference in skills levels among OECD countries can fully explain 55% of differences in economic growth since 1960. This is stark, irrefutable evidence that education is crucial to driving a successful and sustainable economy.  

On top of this, skills gaps cost money; around £6.6bn a year according to the Open University Business Barometer 2020, with 56% of UK organisations experiencing labour shortages. Our own sector (AoC report) has reported that the lack of funding for the skilled Level 3 courses could lead to an additional £3.3bn in lost output between 2019 and 2024.  

There is no escaping the fact that training, re-skilling and changing the economy’s shape to reach the holy grail of a ‘high skill high wage’ workforce requires a skilled education workforce to deliver the training.   

For FE, this means the educator who holds a dual identity as a professional with a specialism as well as being a professional teacher. Staff who bring expertise from their former and current employment practice and combine it with their pedagogic expertise within an FE classroom setting is unique to FE. It is also becoming increasingly more important as the vocational qualification reform and introduction of T levels advances. 

Yet we find ourselves in a position where we have reduced immigration (at least in the short term) and industries are struggling to fill hundreds and thousands of vacancies to keep supply chains moving. This is impacting on wages, with skilled workers finding many more lucrative roles within industry than they ever could in education - yet without our dual professionals in FE, the skills gaps will only widen.  

To tackle this, greater recognition of the vital skills and talents of our vocational teachers is needed. Offering maths and science teachers an additional £3000 for their commitment is undoubtedly well deserved, but where are the incentives for the builders, engineers, plumbers and many other skilled professionals to move into teaching?  

And it’s not just about quantity. We need inspiring teachers who can ensure their skills remain relevant and at pace with the rapidly changing world of technology. To achieve this high standard and commitment, more focus is needed on the concept of dual professionalism - giving genuine status to individuals who are both industry experts and teaching professionals.   

The ETF’s Taking Teaching Further programme aims to attract industry professionals with expert technical skills and knowledge into FE. However, it is getting much harder to find new recruits who are willing to undertake the teaching and mentoring required - with pay being a significant barrier. Employer partnerships can help, but ultimately we are all facing the same issues. 

This is an urgent problem that needs to be addressed. The FE and skills sector needs to be recognised as a priority skills shortage area, with greater resource made available to help us attract the talent we need right now. 

This article appeared first in FE News on Thursday 7 October 2021.


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