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Skills-led recovery

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Why we need a skills-led recovery

Authors: Dr Naeema Pasha, Director of Careers & Professional Development and Founder of World of Work, Henley Business School and Josie Cluer, Partner, EY.

We are heading into a recession. Economists and experts are trying to model how deep it will be and how long it will last, but there is no doubt that it will happen.

Henley Business School and EY have come together to host a programme of work to examine how increasing skills in the UK economy can help weather the storm, for the economy, organisations, and individuals.

How can skills drive the UK’s economic recovery?

The UK economy has structural weaknesses. It is over-reliant on some sectors (e.g. financial services) and some regions (London and the South East of England). Probably the biggest challenge is our low productivity (i.e. output per worker, per hour), a key driver of growth. And it is getting worse, not better. To give you a sense of how unproductive the UK economy is, if we were as productive as Germany, France or the USA, we could actually all work a 4 day week and achieve the same GDP! The biggest driver of growth is productivity, and the big driver of productivity is improved skills. We cannot rely on the formal education system to teach these skills. Instead, we must invest in improving the skills of people already active in the economy.

Questions we will consider include: how can government incentivise workplace learning? How can sectors target the required skills improvements and align with their needs? Which parts of the economy need the biggest investments? And how can skills get the Government’s 'levelling up' agenda back on track?

How can investment in skills help organisations navigate the new normal?

Even before the lockdown, organisations were having to respond to a world that is changing faster than ever before. Technology, demographics, consumer habits, geopolitics and regulation are all making the operating environment volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous "VUCA".

In order to succeed in a fast-changing world, organisations need to be able to change themselves. The crisis has shown how some organisations that have been nimble and adaptable can change quickly and pivot production– e.g. gin makers using existing production lines to make hand sanitiser. The rapid changes to the economy will see more organisations having to do different things, or things differently, over the coming months. To do that, they will need access to different skills. Access to cheap labour from overseas will be increasingly difficult, given changes to immigration rules. So, upskilling or reskilling is the only option. Pre COVID-19 the skills gap was high on the Governments agenda – they had voiced concerns on shortages and skills gaps, emphasising the importance of industry skills needs and the impact on productivity. It is suggested that the underlying slowing of productivity in the UK is partly because companies are not developing new skills at a pace to enable the effective adoption of emerging technologies.

Questions we will consider include: how can organisations define their skills needs for an uncertain future? What is a ’Learning Organisation’ and how can you create one? How can you activate learning to make the most impact on individuals and your organisation? What are the features of modern, engaging learning? And how can you integrate learning into day to day work?

How can improving skills help individuals?

The evidence that learning and skills can improve an individual’s performance is well supported. Better skills lead to more opportunities which can lead to better jobs and increased salary the better skilled you are. This is most true at the bottom of the skills ladder. Basic literacy, numeracy and digital literacy are critical to accessing the jobs market. And there are wider benefits: learning can improve mental health, self-confidence, and physical health.

In addition, the focus on ’soft skills’ – emotional intelligence, resilience, problem solving and communication – is sharper than ever. And particularly for managers and leaders- being able to lead through such uncertain times requires a skillset not previously required. Central to developing a Learning Organisation – to fuel a skills-led recovery - is the idea that to manage change and uncertainty, workers need adaptive and pro-active career qualities, and that leaders in organisations need to enable them to have this.

Questions we will consider include: What are the management and leadership skills of the future? How can individuals become life-long learners? What skills are most important to employment and progression? How can individuals learn from their day to day experiences? How can coaching and mentoring support individuals through this time? And how can you balance learning and earning?

Our first podcast is on the three phases of a skills-led recovery, including presenters from:
Henley Business School:

  • Dr Naeema Pasha (Director of Careers & Professional Development at Henley Business School and Founder of World of Work)
  • Professor Bernd Vogel (Founding Director of Henley Centre for Leadership and Professor in Leadership)


  • Jo Aidroos (UK&I leader, Leadership practice)
  • Josie Cluer (Partner, People Advisory Services and leads EY’s work on skills, education and learning)
  • Frankie Close (Leadership Consultant, People Advisory Services).

We look forward to you joining us.

Published 14 May 2020

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