Workforce skills in Devon

The ‘Workforce Skills Research Programme’ commissioned by Devon County Council and led by SERIO based at Plymouth University aims to support the Council’s Employment and Skills Action Plan by identifying the challenges and issues businesses face in relation to skills in the region.

Through research into current state of skills in Devon and business needs, Devon County Council if helping businesses make informed decisions and keep the regional economy growing.

The key findings from the second annual Workforce Skills Survey, which took place between June and August 2014, and was conducted by SERIO include:

Business Characteristics and Experience of Training: Levels of innovation amongst businesses were found to mirror the 2013 sample, with two-in-five respondents (43%) having engaged in innovation activities in the past three years. This predominantly related to the introduction of a new or significantly improved good, service or process (24% of all businesses), or expenditure in areas such as internal research and development or the acquisition of external knowledge or machinery and equipment (17%).

Businesses were open to training with three-quarters (76%) having accessed some sort of professional help or support for their business in the past three years. However, just one fifth (20%) had a dedicated training budget to meet training needs and support development.

Employee Retention, Skills and Qualifications: Fewer businesses experienced difficulties in the retention of their employees (4% compared to 10% in 2013), commonly attributed to the requirements of the job and limited opportunity for career progression. Similarly to the 2013 survey, businesses in the occupational group of skilled trade were more likely to experience problems.

Looking forward over the next three years, (and reflecting findings from the 2013 survey) the biggest skills-related challenges were perceived to be appropriate recruitment (specifically recruiting staff with the skills or experience required by the business); and keeping up with the pace of technology and ICT development. Of note is that just 12% of businesses stated they did not need any digital skills, compared with 28% twelve months ago suggesting the increasing importance of this skillset.

Assessing Supply and Demand: Three-in-five businesses (60%) had funded or arranged staff development activities for their employees over the 12 months preceding the survey. This is broadly in line with levels from 2013 (65%). Whilst businesses favoured off-site training provided by an external organisation (76%); onsite training delivered through both existing staff (63%) and an external organisation (60%) were also commonplace.

Approximately three-quarters of businesses (74%) anticipated the amount of money they spend on training to stay the same over the next 12 months, in contrast to 14% who anticipated an increase, 3% who expected a decrease, and 9% who were undecided. Those highlighting a likely reduction in spend attributed it to employees either having recently undertaken or completed training; a contraction in overall business size; and financial cuts or potential closure.

Recruitment: Of the businesses that had vacancies in the last 12 months, almost two-fifths (37%) experienced difficulty in filling them. This compares to 34% experiencing difficulties from the 2013 survey. For 50% of businesses, that was on account of a lack of suitably skilled applicants, whilst for 28% this was due to a lack of suitably qualified applicants.

Similarly to the position in 2013, the survey found low levels of employment for those in their first job since leaving education. Over the last three years, 24% of businesses had employed someone in their first job since leaving school (compared to 32% in 2013), 24% since leaving a further education college, and just 17% since leaving university (compared to 31% and 22% in 2013 respectively). With specific regard to apprenticeships, a fifth of businesses (21%) had employed staff undertaking apprenticeships over the last three years, with the largest proportion of these based within the broad industry groups of construction; agriculture; and wholesale and retail.

Cross-cutting Themes and Recommendations: The report presents three cross-cutting themes emerging from the Workforce Skills Survey and suggests some early recommendations that could be considered by Devon County Council, relevant partners and stakeholders. Some themes and recommendations build upon those cited in the 2013 Workforce Skills Report, reflecting the parallels between the two surveys. These are summarised below:

Theme 1 – Engagement with Young People and Apprenticeships: Similarly to 2013, whilst there is still work to be done to promote the business benefits of young people and early career starters to businesses in Devon, the survey suggests that businesses also need to know more about the practical implications of further engaging with this group. Secondly, there is an opportunity for schools and colleges to increasingly work with businesses to promote engagement opportunities. In support of these issues it is recommended that:

  • work is undertaken to ensure that businesses are made aware of the practical implications of engagement through the distribution of coherent and consistent information
  • partners and stakeholders ensure that opportunities for engagement with schools and colleges are made accessible to the business community through an increasingly proactive approach.

Theme 2 – The Digital Skills Challenge: There are a number of existing support programmes for businesses in Devon to improve their ICT skills and knowledge. For example, the ‘Get up to Speed’ support programme run by Connecting Devon and Somerset which offers information locally through events, workshops and other community support activities, allowing businesses and residents to fully harness the benefits of current or future high-speed broadband.

A number of relevant complimentary national initiatives are also accessible to SMEs in Devon, such as Go ON UK, run in partnership with the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), which ensures that small businesses have the opportunity and ability to build their basic online skills and presence. In order to support the digital skills challenge it is recommended that:

  • initiatives to further promote and signpost businesses toward support for digital skills development are considered, linked to national initiatives as appropriate.

Theme 3 – Vacancies, Retention, and Employment of Career Starters: The survey revealed that businesses are still experiencing problems in sourcing the right calibre of applicant from the labour market, with the skills-set available amongst jobseekers not matching their business needs. As such, and as outlined in the 2013 report, it is recommended that:

  • a clear process is developed to articulate business needs to providers and funding agencies to ensure that provision is needs-led.

The ability of the county to retain its graduate population is an important factor in determining the quality of its labour force. However, retention is limited by both a business reluctance to employ graduates, and high levels of retention in the existing labour force. As such, it is recommended that:

  • partners and stakeholders consider how to promote and articulate the business benefits of employing career starters to address cultural and knowledge barriers, particularly in relation to the skills and attributes offered by the graduate market

Labour market data