Business demands more of school leavers

HOW CAN it be that, as broadcasters and newspapers have begun to return to their early Nineties habit of producing regular round-ups of job losses, there is still so much talk of a "skills shortage" hurting British industry?

There is a huge demand for specialists in information technology because of the need to deal with the looming threat of the millennium computer bug and the simultaneous introduction of the euro. But, surely, the factory closures and other responses to the growing economic pessimism must be dealing with the mismatch between vacancies and applicants in most other job categories?

To a certain extent, yes. But, according to research from the TEC National Council, part of the "shortage" stems from the way business has expanded its definition of skilled workers.

"Recruitment difficulties, reported as skills shortages, often have more to do with low employment tenure, poor terms and conditions, the poor image of some industries, and an overall tightening of the labour market in areas of low unemployment," says the survey published earlier this month.

The research on the skills needs of business does find evidence of genuine occupational skill shortages. As well as the predictable area of IT, these tend to fall into such categories as electronic and mechanical engineering, construction, health, marketing and people management. But there is little sign that such shortages are increasing.

Instead, the researchers discovered that employers arewidening the definition of skills to embrace individuals' "employability".

This raises the controversial subject of the extent to which school and college leavers are adequately prepared for the world of work. The skills that employers seek but typically find lacking include motivation, communication, problem solving and customer service.

Mary Lord, acting chief executive of the TEC National Council, said of the survey: "Our findings reinforce the importance of employers investing in training, and the need to relate business planning to human resource strategies.

"Employers are seeking individuals with certain skills. More needs to be done to increase the supply of employable individuals to the labour market by ensuring that schools, colleges and other providers of training place greater emphasis on the employability skills that employers need."