Sue Southwood reflects on the findings of a consultation looking into what employers want from reformed functional skills.

Employers tell us again and again that their main concern — and the biggest threat to economic growth — is a lack of workforce skills.

These concerns were highlighted once again during our consultation with over 500 employers, of all sizes, all sectors, and from across the country, as part of the functional skills reform programme.

This programme, which we have been leading on behalf of both the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and Department for Education (DfE), is still very much in progress.

We have already heard from more than 1,000 representatives of employers and providers about what they think must be done to improve the qualifications, which, despite being relatively new, have already had a positive impact on many people’s lives.

However, research clearly shows that more must be done to improve their relevance, content, recognition and credibility — particularly with employers.

What is most striking from what employers have told us is that most of their workforce — and in particular junior and new members of staff, many of whom will be undertaking apprenticeships or traineeships — fear maths, and some feel the same about English, particularly grammar and spelling.

When employers provide training, workers are often reluctant to take part because of their experiences at school.

It is no wonder that employers cite the lack of skills as a priority.

How can people — especially those starting apprenticeships and traineeships — feel confident and get on in their careers without feeling confident in speaking, reading and writing as well as using numbers, which they need to apply and use in their roles?

Workers need to feel that they can thrive throughout their careers — not just hope to survive in their current role.

What really stood out though was employers overwhelmingly telling us that they need employees who can speak and write confidently and clearly.

Workers need to understand questions and give relevant, logical and coherent answers in language that is appropriate to the audience — customer or colleague — recognising the difference between formal and informal language.

They also want staff with basic applied and practical skills that would allow them to use mental arithmetic to calculate VAT or materials needed for a specific job, break down a problem into smaller parts, and then work through it systematically.

Workers must also have the confidence to persevere by trying different approaches if the right answer is not achieved straightaway.

Apprenticeships and traineeships in particular should be a perfect scenario for people to learn to apply their knowledge when in work.

All of these skills, that are such a necessity for employers, are what functional skills will provide learners with.

We are about to publish new draft versions of the proposed revised standards for maths and English. We urge you to consider these and feedback your comments to us.

It is essential the new standards will be used by qualification bodies and training providers to ensure great outcomes for learners, and your involvement is particularly important.

This reform programme is our opportunity to work together to get skills for work right.

We know how significant AELP members are in delivering apprenticeships, and appreciate the need to be flexible about how these skills are assessed.

Fundamentally, it is imperative that employers have staff — particularly in new or junior roles — who are confident to apply what they have learnt.

Equally, we must give people opportunities to thrive in work and in life through learning qualifications that relate, and can be applied, to real-work and real-life situations.

We are hugely grateful to the more than 1,000 individuals, organisations and businesses who have given us their view on the future of functional skills.

And we will continue to support teachers and trainers to teach the new qualifications effectively with a comprehensive CPD plan operated through the maths and English pipeline.