This morning, RICS, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, released their Q4 Construction Market Survey. 66% of construction professionals reported recruitment difficulties to be the most significant barrier to growth in the last quarter of 2015. 60% of survey respondents had difficulties finding quantity surveyors.
At the same time, HESA’s new figures on student numbers showed that the number of students enrolled in UK higher education fell 1% last year.
The RICS data follows a pattern emerging from many sources in recent months. The British Chambers of Commerce noted in their Q4 Quarterly Economic Survey that 79% of manufacturing companies and 64% of service companies had trouble recruiting last quarter (more data on their excellent web site). The image below, taken from their site, puts those difficulties into context.
And a recent report from Universities UK (to which I contributed) notes that we currently have an undersupply, in total, of graduates.
We will shortly get Employer Skills Survey data from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills that will help us to map the nature and extent of many of these undersupplies, but even data from the 2013 survey outlined widespread shortages of graduates across multiple sectors.
Some of the most serious are in engineering, where we simply don’t have enough graduates in most disciplines, and in IT, where there are not enough graduates with the skills to meet demand. The RICS report shows that allied professions particularly surveyors, but also planners and related roles, are in short supply. But the focus on STEM skills does tends to distract from the fact that we also have widespread graduate recruitment difficulties across many service industries.
There are two main ways we can address this issue wrongly. The first is to assume that the problem is that graduates are not good enough and berate the education system. Although not all graduates will be as ready to enter the workplace as they could be, this only applies to a minority. The 2013 ESS found that the large majority – well over 80% – of recruiters felt that graduates were well-prepared for work. The second is to blame graduates for their career choices. Now we charge students £9,000 a year to take a higher education degree, explicitly on the grounds that they will personally benefit from their study, they quite reasonably feel they can then do as they choose with that qualification.
The issue is that there are not enough graduates, and that those we do have are not always easily convinced or trained to enter the professions where we most need them, and that this undersupply of graduates is an active barrier to growth in some industries.
This can be frustrating. A majority of graduate occupations are, at least in theory, open to graduates from any discipline, and this goes particularly for occupations in business service industries. We see this most starkly in marketing, an expanding occupation with significant demand for graduates and where marketing graduates made up a relatively small minority of entrants in 2014 because there were simply not enough to meet demand.
But it’s not always that easy. For many graduates in less vocational degrees that allow significant career flexibility, the sheer range of options can itself be paralysing. It becomes very difficult to choose from the dizzying range of career options available, especially when a student is not really familiar with what they all entail. And whilst there is more some sections of the economy can do to persuade workers with the right skills to join their industries, the same is not true everywhere. If we want to fill mechanical engineering vacancies, we need suitably qualified people.
But are we doing enough to help that process along? Do we make it easy enough for graduates with appropriate qualifications to convert to professions like engineering or surveying where the lack of qualified staff actively harms economic growth?
As we go into 2016 with recruitment difficulties towards the top of the agenda, these are some of the questions we need to wrestle with.
For institutions, we need to ensure that students get the right support and guidance and to build their confidence so that they feel equipped to make decisions. Just because the market is rather better for graduates in 2016 than it was in 2012 doesn’t mean that the decision making process is any easier.
For employers, this year will see more recruitment and retention difficulties. It will mean being more innovative about addressing them, looking more widely at the likely supply of graduates in their business areas, examining reward packages and ensuring that they remain competitive and about developing new strategies to cope. These issues are not likely to go away until we have another recession, and even then they will be only temporarily put on hold before they return.
For students, this means recognising that good graduates will be in demand from multiple sectors, but only those who keep their options open. Good advice and guidance can help make those difficult decisions – but they should never forget that they have a long working life ahead of them, and it’s ok if they don’t quite know what they want to do, or even if they spend a little while doing something that they later conclude isn’t for them. Better to make career mistakes early.
As recent economic news, and the worries expressed from some quarters shows, there is a lot that can happen in 2016. But the most likely outcome at the moment is that in 2017 we’ll have more shortages of graduates over more areas. Let’s try to mitigate that as much as we can.