The employer skills survey pointed out, in general, how skills shortages were threatening to undermine any economic recovery. Mick Fletcher takes a closer, critical look at the survey.

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) has been sensibly even-handed with its National Employer Skills Survey (NESS), simultaneously urging employers to raise their ambitions and FE colleges to do more to place themselves at the cutting edge of training.

What has been missing from the commentary is any serious interrogation of the report and its assumptions.

It’s as though the evident reliability of the data has blinded users to some serious questions that might be raised about its validity.

It may, of course, just be that a narrative about the need for more training is convenient for almost all stakeholders, and no-one wants to rock the boat.

The reliability of evidence relates to whether or not the results might have occurred by chance.

Although it is based on interviewing a sample of employers, NESS is based on more than 90,000 interviews with a carefully- constructed cross section of establishments.        If it were to be repeated it is highly likely that it would produce a similar set of results, as is illustrated by the stability of the time series data.

The validity of evidence, however, is the extent to which it measures what you think it is measuring.

It’s a fragile basis for drawing far-reaching conclusions

It’s not a question of how many people you ask, but whether their answers mean what you think they do.

The concept of ‘skill shortage’ on which so much of the report’s analysis rests, is one that requires much further scrutiny.

Contrary to much of the commentary, employers cannot ‘report’ a skill shortage.

They can report a vacancy and they can give their ideas as to why that vacancy has not been filled.

One reason given might be the lack of applicants with suitable skills (NESS wisely probes with an open-ended question).

This, however, is not the same as evidence that there are no potential applicants with suitable skills out there, which is what you might think a skills shortage means.

It could be that no-one with the right skills was prepared to work at the rate offered, it could be that the workplace was in the middle of nowhere with poor transport links or that the employer used a poor recruitment strategy.

It’s a fragile basis for drawing far-reaching conclusions about the need to alter the balance of college programmes or the careers advice given to young people.

The report defines skill shortages as “vacancies which are proving difficult to fill due to the establishment not being able to find applicants with the appropriate skills, qualifications or experience”.

It then presents the apparently worrying fact that more than a fifth (22 per cent) of all vacancies and 30 per cent of those that are hard to fill are caused by skill shortages. But turn this around.

The same figure means that 70 per cent of hard to fill vacancies have applicants with the appropriate skills, qualifications and experience.

Maybe they don’t want the job. Maybe the employer has a valid reason for not wanting a well-qualified applicant.

Whichever it is, increasing skills supply does not appear to be the appropriate response to the issue, and lack of skills may not be the main thing that is holding back the economy.

There is, of course, another simpler way of analysing skill shortages. One can look at wage rates.

Economics does not explain everything, but in a well-functioning market if a particular skill is in short supply employers will bid up wages.

It happened a few years ago with plumbers and maths skills always earn a premium.

The best way to align education with the needs of the labour market is to give clear and unbiased information on the opportunities, including wages, offered in different occupations and let the opportunities for training be driven by the resulting choices.

Mick Fletcher is an FE Consultant