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A growing skills shortage is affecting an increasingly broad swathe of businesses.

While the loss of European labour after Brexit evidently hasn’t helped, some sectors are also finding themselves more naturally short of talent, as they struggle to get people into their industries. At the same time, fewer young people are choosing to attend university due to the high costs involved, and are going straight into work instead.

This has inevitably led to a lowering of hiring standards for some industries, as positions still need to be filled, even if the applicants aren’t all perfect. But lower hiring standards doesn’t mean lower standards in terms of employees’ application, ability or general outlook – it simply means moving focus away from hiring (or at least, refocusing hiring on identifying potential), and towards upskilling and developing talent in-house.

Assessing the skill deficit

Skills shortages aren’t a new problem, but they do seem to have intensified in recent years. One easy source of blame is Brexit, and the loss of free movement for European workers. While accommodations have been made to allow more visas from the rest of the world, this doesn‘t seem to have covered the deficit in some industries, particularly those which rely on lower paid or seasonal workers who do not qualify under most visa schemes.

However, this is only one part of a complex problem. One increasingly evident factor is the recent changes in working patterns, as well as people’s favoured career tracks. The advent of remote working has been a Pandora’s box moment, with employees increasingly demanding and pursuing flexible working opportunities, even as larger firms try to pull people back to the office. The abundance of jobs and a change in attitudes among younger workers has also seen more and more people switching jobs or even careers, and no longer being content to ‘work their way up the ladder’.

The difficult economic conditions for businesses also mean there is less money to spend on talent, as well as less talent to go around. Expectations are being heightened among employees, who – particularly when comparing wages to those in the capital – may not be satisfied with traditionally appropriate pay. As a result, many businesses are having to hire younger and less qualified employees than they might have done previously. But is this necessarily a bad thing?

Risk and reward

Young people trying to get into work have always complained that the bar is set unrealistically high. Even relatively junior positions often list several years of industry experience as a basic requirement, putting many talented people off from applying. In some cases, those people who do apply for roles have simply embellished their CVs, and do not actually have the experience, skills or qualifications they pretend to have. Yet this skullduggery is seen as a common, if not wholly accepted part of the application process. The job of the employer is to set enough tests and ask enough questions to try and weed these people out.

But why should it be this way? Many prospective employees who might prove to be just as capable miss out on jobs because they lack the experience, or the moxy to talk their way through the interview process. In a sense, hiring standards might not have been all that high before; there was just a perception that a more competitive environment for employees led to better results. A more open market with fewer available applicants could actually be an opportunity for businesses to take a chance on developing talent, and giving people the experience they need to succeed.

Consider for instance how most professional football teams operate. At the top end of the league, you have teams who buy the most expensive players to remain competitive. Sometimes this works, but any new signing is a risk, as you can’t always guarantee that they will work out as well for their new club as they did the previous one. Many circumstances may have influenced their performance, from the system they were playing in, to their teammates and coaches, to how happy they were in that country and city.

Lower down the tables and leagues, teams are more reliant on developing young talent. This is in the hope that they will develop into better players that allow them to be more competitive, and earn the money the clubs need to support their ambitions. While companies can’t sell talent in the way football clubs can, the point stands: spending big on talent isn’t always sustainable, and an employee’s CV and interview skills aren’t always a guarantee of success. As well as the cost benefit, training can produce a better suited and more loyal employee than simply chasing readymade talent.

The benefits and drawbacks of training

The other, less heralded aspect of hiring talent is ensuring you hold onto it. On this front, skills training can be extremely fruitful. Personal and career progression are important, and skills training gives employees a sense that they are improving, and stand a chance of progressing within the company. Ideally, they will progress into a role that you would have more difficulty hiring for due to the specific skills required. By training more junior employees to fill senior positions, you can solve the problem of the availability of talent, and ensure they have exactly the knowledge and skills you require.

Providing skills training can also change the way you approach and look at recruitment. By looking at people’s transferable skills and capacity for learning and improvement, you may end up making better hires than when you simply assess the most directly relevant skills for a position. A willingness to learn and receive training will generally reflect well on an employee’s commitment, work ethic, and ability to receive instruction and negotiate difficult tasks.

Of course, there are drawbacks to this development-first approach. If you are recruiting less skilled workers directly into a higher aptitude role, having to train them on the job risks an initial period of low or poor quality output. Naturally, some positions also demand skills that you can’t simply work your way into, whether this is from a competency perspective or for health and safety reasons.

The change of mindset towards improving employees can also take time to bed in, and be costly in the initial stages. While not always true, identifying the potential for upskilling can be more difficult than simply looking at someone’s qualifications and interview performance, a process most people are more familiar and confident in. The company culture also has to support it: you don’t want to hire and train up employees only for them to want to leave as soon as they have a more impressive CV.


The skills shortage is real, but the extent to which it’s affecting standards is questionable. If anything, the scarcity of talent in some industries may make organisations open up to a greater range of people, and focus more on how talent can be nurtured, rather than simply used. Through skills training, employees could be moulded into exactly what the business needs – and given a greater incentive to stick around.

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Mark Fryer

8th January 2024

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