Only by employers and educators working closely together can the UK’s chronic and increasing skills gap be closed, says Sandra Kelly

Employers must take ownership of the skills agenda to ensure that vocational programmes reflect what industry really wants and needs. The recent funding-band cuts across multiple sectors just go to show how important it is for employers to be proactive and to work in partnership.

The importance of this employer-led ethos really hit home when we invited the head of the Food Teachers Centre (a 5,000-strong self-help group for secondary-school teachers) to one of our quarterly Hospitality Skills & Quality Board meetings.

The idea was to exchange ideas to address the vastly reduced number of students on food-related courses at schools, which is set to have a profound impact on the talent pipeline, apprenticeships and full-time college hospitality and catering courses.

It’s no exaggeration to say that some of them looked shell-shocked to learn that fewer than 50,000 students in the UK are now taking GCSE Food Preparation and Nutrition – 50 per cent less than a decade ago.

Budget cuts and the new Ofsted inspection framework offer nothing to guarantee food education. This challenge is amplified by the fact that hospitality and tourism have one of the highest levels of skills gap of any sector.

It is estimated that by 2024, they will need to recruit an additional 1.3 million people (‘People & Productivity’, People 1st report, 2017).

On another occasion, we arranged for last year’s AA College Restaurant of the Year, Milton Keynes College, to meet with the Hospitality Skills and Quality Board to share what works well, and to set out why they refuse to work with employers that fail to provide a quality student experience.

The employer-led approach at the heart of both these initiatives highlights the need to encompass the whole talent pipeline. There’s no reason why this approach can’t be applied elsewhere.

FE colleges, for example, could be invited to meet with employer-led boards in other sectors where curriculums are being delivered. After all, why would you not want to influence and collaborate with employers who are actively investing in apprenticeships and further education in their workplaces?

One of the challenges with change initiatives is that to succeed they must be deeply embedded at a cultural level. Whilst it’s true that infrastructures and frameworks provide a platform for colleges to develop innovative partnerships, a sound strategy and effective communication at all levels helps to set the tone.

Our employer-led college accreditation board is an approach that can be mirrored in other sectors. Similarly, the partnership we have established with the AA for the AA College Restaurant of the Year award for student-run college restaurants is an idea that can be replicated in other sectors.

We need more initiatives like these to give the colleges an opportunity to be creative and really stretch the boundaries of what’s possible.

Another way to do this is to collaborate with the government and other key stakeholders. The Aviation Industry Skills Board, for example, is working closely with the Department of Transport to ensure the Aviation 2050 strategy delivers a ready supply of talent to meet current demand and future need.

Ultimately, these types of initiatives can only succeed if employers are fully engaged and working in partnership with education. Having industry around the table to develop entry-level standards for apprenticeships and the future T-levels simply isn’t enough.

We need to capitalise on the energy and passion of committed employers. This means not only unearthing what’s happening to their talent pipeline, but also taking collective responsibility to finding a sustainable solution.

Skills shortages are without doubt one of the biggest challenges currently facing the UK economy. It’s time to take action now.