The UK skills gap is significant. The Open University 2019 Business Barometer Report reveals that in the year to July 2019, 63% of UK organisations experienced a skills shortage, while 68% of employers struggled to recruit the right skilled workers. Moreover, 62% said that finding suitable employees in the next 12 months would be difficult, with contributing factors including an ageing population and the digital revolution.

Under pressure, many employers are resorting to plugging the gap by buying in talent through recruitment or using temporary workers or consultants. However, this can be costly and unsustainable when the needs of the organisation shift again and new skills gaps arise. Organisations paid £4.4 billion throughout 2019 in recruitment fees, temporary staffing, increased salaries and hiring and training people for roles that require more experience.

When hiring fresh talent is the best option, new employees need transferable skills to adapt to the changing needs of the organisation and to fill any shortages that may arise in future. Regardless of whether new talent is needed, the key to a sustainable approach is long-term investment in developing existing employees. Those familiar with the organisation are well placed to help fill skills gaps if they have the right opportunities and support to develop.

Many employers already retrain and upskill existing staff. From 2018–19, more than half (53%) increased their training budget, with 71% saying that investing in staff learning and development was more sustainable than the short-term approach to plugging skills shortages.

This longer-term approach is essential in the rapidly changing world of work, and employers and educators alike must embrace and support lifelong learning. The higher education sector has a key role to play in preparing workers for the needs and landscape of the future. Our job as education providers is to foster an environment where individuals can learn, question, explore, think, share and inspire. Transferable skills and an appetite for learning are increasingly essential traits sought by forward-thinking employers who realise they can no longer afford to hire based on short-term needs and hard skills.

At the Open University, we work with employers to understand their needs and to help them retrain and upskill their employees, as well as preparing students for their next stage of employment. As the UK’s biggest provider of part-time distance learning, we work with more than 2,400 organisations across many sectors. We see first-hand the transferable soft skills that students, apprentices and graduates who have proactively embraced lifelong learning can bring to an organisation.

We recognise that individuals have varying learning needs at different life and employment stages, just as organisations have specific skills requirements throughout their lifecycle. Modular learning, particularly at work, enables employees to use the skills and knowledge they develop immediately, meaning businesses see a quick return on their investment. There is also a direct and indirect effect, where one person’s training boosts the whole team’s productivity. Colleagues can acquire the skills that someone they work with gained through training and education.

Our job as educators and employers is to work together to develop well-rounded, talented students, employees and graduates so that they have the hard and soft skills to thrive, whatever the jobs of the future may look like. It is only through such action that we will reach a sustainable employment landscape focused on the development of individuals and the success and productivity of business.

The topics covered in this blog will be discussed and debated by leading business professionals and academics at The Open University’s Employability Conference 2020 on 11 March.

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