NHS severely impacted by UK skill shortage

Author: Jo Carlowe
NHS severely impacted by UK skill shortage

Skills shortages are severely impacting England’s biggest employer — the NHS.

This is the finding from a new report* published today by education charity, the Edge Foundation, which highlights the fact that one in eleven NHS posts are unfilled.

In its Skills Shortage Bulletin, the independent education charity reports that there are 41,000 nurse vacancies alone, but also problems in medicine, adult social care and particularly in mental health.

The report highlights research by the Health Foundation in its latest commentary on skills shortages in the UK.

Numbers of nurse undergraduates dropped by 4% last year; the bulletin states, noting that it is predicted the shortage of nurses alone will reach 70,000 within five years if action isn’t taken.

General secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, Dame Donna Kinnair, who cites the abolition of grants for student nurses as a contributing factor to the recruitment crisis, commented: “Rather than only looking at the cost of educating and employing nurses, the government must think about the true cost – financial and human – of not doing it… the goodwill of nursing staff is being abused and politicians must know it is running out.”

The report exposes the severity of skills shortages across the wider UK economy with over two-thirds (68%) of UK employers saying they have struggled to find workers with the skills they need in the previous year.

Key findings include: 

  • 92% of companies say “soft skills” matter as much or more than hard skills
  • A third of the working age population have few or no qualifications
  • The Office for National Statistics estimated that 1.5 million jobs are at high risk of automation
  • 70.2% of the jobs most at risk are currently held by women.

The report’s author, Edge’s director of policy and research, Olly Newton, commented: “By bringing together analysis from across organisations and sectors, we can see this is a perfect storm. The fact that employers struggle to recruit because candidates don’t have the skills they need, shows the depth of the schism between education policy and industrial strategy.

“The so-called ‘soft skills’ that people need to secure employment, should be called ‘critical skills’ because these are the skills, behaviours and aptitudes we need in the workplace now and to adapt to the jobs of the future. It is women, younger people and those with lower levels of skills who are most vulnerable to being replaced by computer programs, algorithms or robots. We should be mapping our curriculum and life-long learning offer to the skills we need for 21st century jobs, not to the 19th century notion that exam grades are the only measure of talent and ability.”

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, said: “The number of nurse vacancies in the NHS has been high for some time; as well as a number of actions being taken by employers to bridge the gap, we also urgently need to see radical change to policy.

“For example, we have been making the case for some time that we need change to the way employers can use the apprenticeship levy. If the government could offer greater flexibility in the way the levy can be employed – specifically, extending the timeframe to access funds, use of the levy to fund backfill for nursing apprenticeships, and to build supervisory capacity – it would make it more viable to use the nurse apprenticeship route at scale.

“Alongside improving incentives for undergraduate study, this would go some way to increasing nurse supply into the NHS and support the training of people who may not be in a position to enter nurse training through the traditional university route.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We have tens of thousands more doctors and nurses on our wards since 2010, all working tirelessly to deliver excellent, safe care to patients.

"We’ve set out immediate actions we're taking to reduce vacancies and secure the staff we need for the future - including significant changes to address pensions tax concerns, adding 5,000 extra university clinical placements and growing the workforce with more international recruitment."

*Skills Shortages in the UK Economy. Edge Foundation Bulletin 5. July 2019