Skills shortage or skills gap?

(left) The great advantage of a competence-based approach — Keith Marshall.<BR> (Right)Increasing middle management increases productivity — Simon Bartley.
How does SummitSkills perceive the staffing situation in the building-services sector, and how is the recently formed organisation planning to tackle the issues? We found out from Keith Marshall and Simon Bartley.veryone knows there is a skills shortage in the building-services industry. That belief is so ingrained that it must be true, mustn’t it? Keith Marshall, chief executive of SummitSkills, the sector skills council for the building-services-engineering sector that was awarded its 5-year licence last December is not so sure. ‘The truth of the matter is that there is not a skills shortage, but a skills gap,’ he says. By that he means that there is not a shortage of people with appropriate skills at lower levels but at higher levels in the industry. Simon Bartley, chairman of SummitSkills elaborates: ‘There appears to be a shortage of chargehands and foremen in the electrical sector. One school of thought is that you need to increase the middle-management level to increase productivity on site and in office.’ Further evidence of the nature of the problem comes from the fact that, according to Keith Marshall, the big training providers like BEST and JTL are turning people away because there are not enough employers to provide the training. The difference between a skills gap and a skills shortage, explains Keith Marshall, is that a skills gap can be filled by further training of the existing workforce, whereas overcoming a skills shortage requires the recruitment of more people into the industry. ‘Tackling the skills gap,’ he says, requires the industry first to acknowledge it and then for the means of providing the required training to be funded.’ However, at this stage, with SummitSkills only seven months old, these views are based on empirical instincts. ‘Good solid data is needed,’ says Keith Marshall. To provide that information, a BSRIA project is gathering data that will be used to develop an appropriate response — including training and funding. The BSRIA project will develop an on-going national resource containing details of significant numbers of employees in a range of categories such as gender, age, ethnicity and skills — both nationwide and by region. One concern is insufficient SIC and SOC codings providing information on industrial and occupational classifications. BSRIA is providing the additional information through primary research with contractors so as to assess research criteria, fill gaps in existing data and test assumptions within the data resource model. The results of BSRIA’s research will show the current number of employees by sector and region and forecast recruitment needs availability of people and their skills. The current phase of the project runs ot August. Phase two will run from September to December 2004. Addressing both the long and short-term training needs of the industry is covered in five areas of strategic priorities identified by SummitSkills. • Encouraging new entrants to the sector. • Ensuring the right competencies, standards and qualifications are in place. • Developing and promoting a career structure to maximise the opportunities for entrants and participants at all levels. • Helping to improve productivity across the UK. • Political influence and lobbying of the Government on behalf of employers. It is the long-term perspective that Keith Marshall believes will become the strength of the industry and the people in it. The remit of SummitSkills includes everything from NVQs up to degree level and beyond — and right across the skills spectrum. Keith Marshall explains that becoming a chartered engineer and earning NVQs are both based on acquiring and demonstrating competence. He explains, ‘The great advantage of a competence-based approach is that how you get there is irrelevant. It also sows the seeds for people who first acquire NVQs to develop into engineers and, in due course, earn chartered status.’ One potentially significant long-term benefit is that an apprentice can develop skills and then move on to acquire knowledge — eventually becoming a very good engineer because of the depth of his skills base. The problem of staffing the industry is made more difficult, believes Keith Marshall, by the Government’s policy of 50% of people going to university. School leavers are a big source of entry to the industry as apprentices. ‘Too many people who would be better suited to an apprenticeship are being persuaded to stay on in the education system, often inappropriately. ‘Employers have to take a broader view and fish outside the pool of 16-year olds. Because of the increasing numbers of people staying on at school, that pool is getting smaller. Staying on after 16 does many of them a disservice.’ Simon Bartley points to other benefits of early entry into an apprenticeship. ‘By the age of 21, an apprentice will be earning significantly more than a graduate.’ Defining the long-term aims of SummitSkills, Charles Clarke, Secretary of State for Employment & Skills, said at its launch, ‘I have no doubt that SummitSkills will be able to lay the groundwork for employers to training and employ the staff and craftspeople they need, where and when they are needed. This will ensure that skills shortages and skills gaps are a thing of the past.’
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