Report suggests up to seven million workers may lack Essential Employment Skills to do their jobs by 2035

Thursday 13 June 2024

A new study suggests that up to seven million workers in England may lack the Essential Employment Skills (EES)* they need to do their jobs by the year 2035. 

Rethinking skills gaps and solutions is the latest in a suite of papers under the NFER-led Skills Imperative 2035: Essential skills for tomorrow's workforce, a five-year research programme funded by the Nuffield Foundation. 

The analysis, conducted by NFER, is the first of its kind; using a specially designed instrument to estimate both the EES that people possess (skills supply) and the skills requirements of their jobs (skills demand), before comparing the two to quantify skills gaps. 

It suggests that the proportion of workers in England with ‘substantial’ EES deficiencies – meaning the skills requirements of their jobs surpass the skills they possess - may grow from 13 per cent of workers (3.7 million people) in 2023 up to 22 per cent (seven million) in 2035 unless urgent action is taken. 

This is largely because most workers across the labour market will need to utilise EES more intensively in their jobs in the future. Almost 90 per cent of the 2.2 million new jobs that will be created in England between 2020 and 2035 will be professional occupations, such as scientists and engineers. These roles will require higher levels of proficiency in these EES. Unless workers’ supply of these skills rises in response, skills gaps are likely to become more prevalent and more problematic.  

Jude Hillary, the programme’s Principal Investigator and NFER’s Co-Head of UK Policy and Practice, said: 

“The Government should be concerned about the prospect of widening skills gaps and should incentivise employer investment in the development of their workforce’s essential employment skills. 

“Allowing these gaps to widen could lead to the stifling of the country’s productivity and act as a drag on economic growth.” 

Dr Emily Tanner, Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation, said: 

"The robust measurement of essential employment skills in this report provides compelling evidence of the importance of skills for individuals and businesses alike. It demonstrates the need for a lifelong approach to skill development as well as opportunities to put skills to use across all occupations."  

The report also says: 

Nearly one in five workers in managerial jobs (e.g. HR managers and directors), professional jobs (e.g. accountants) and associate professional occupations (e.g. engineering technicians) have substantial EES skills deficiencies. 

Workers in jobs such as skilled trades, sales, customer services and admin are more likely to have under-utilised EES skills which they have developed in previous roles or outside of work. Tapping into these latent skills will become increasingly important for employers, individuals and the economy, given the crucial role EES will play across the workforce in 2035. 

Higher levels of EES are associated with higher job and life satisfaction. 

People with higher levels of EES earn more and are more likely to be in management positions. 

The paper recommends: 

That employers grappling with skills gaps should consider what more they can do to align expectations and skills assessments between managers and workers across their workforce.  

Employers should consider what more they can do to support their line managers to identify and utilise the ‘latent’ EES of their workers. 

Government should further incentivise employer investment in the development of their workforce’s EES. 

The Department for Education (DfE) considers what more it can do to support education and training providers to identify and adopt the best strategies for assessing and developing people’s EES. 

* These skills are: communication, collaboration, problem-solving, organising, planning and prioritising work, creative thinking and information literacy. 

Notes to editors

The co-investigators on the Skills Imperative 2035 programme are from the following institutions: University of Warwick, University of Sheffield, University of Roehampton Cambridge Econometrics, Learning & Work Institute and Kantar Public.

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) is the leading independent provider of education research, and holds the status of Independent Research Organisation (IRO) from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Our unique position and approach delivers evidence-based insights designed to enable education policy makers and practitioners to take action to improve outcomes for children and young people.

Our key topic areas are: accountability, assessment, classroom practice, education to employment, social mobility, school funding, school workforce and systems and structures. As a not-for profit organisation, we re-invest any surplus funds into self-funded research and development to further contribute to the science and knowledge of education research.

The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social well-being. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare and Justice. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the Ada Lovelace Institute and the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation.