The UK government doesn't know what science and tech skills the economy needs or how Brexit will affect firms' ability to recruit staff, MPs have warned.
In a withering report published today, Parliament's influential Public Accounts Committee criticised the government's poor understanding of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills in the UK and a "lack of urgency" in addressing shortages.
"STEM skills are crucial for the UK's productivity, and a shortage of STEM skills in the workforce is one of our key economic problems," the MPs said.
While political leaders appreciated this, the committee warned that "warm words" were not enough, slamming the government's failure to come up with a coherent plan to ensure the UK had the right skills – especially as Brexit could make it more difficult to bring in overseas talent.
The PAC pointed the finger at the two departments that should be most knowledgeable – the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Department for Education.
"BEIS and DfE do not currently have sufficient understanding of what specific skills businesses really need or how Brexit will affect the already difficult task of ensuring the supply of STEM skills in the workforce," said the PAC.
The committee also criticised the departments' "lack of urgency", noting that they are heavily reliant on the Migration Advisory Committee – which isn't due to issue its report on EU workers in the UK labour market until September – and a DfE employer skills survey that isn't due to report until the summer.
Further bugbears included the lack of universal definition of a STEM subject or job; that skills development lags behind the pace of technological change; and uncertainties over whether the public sector pay cap is preventing overseas workers joining major infrastructure projects.
The MPs were also less than complimentary about the boards and panels the government is setting up in the hopes of spotting skills gaps. Whitehall STEM boards and working groups – often staffed by policy wonks – don't include enough practical industry or commercial experience to spot key problems and deliver effective solutions, the report said.
Meanwhile, the MPs said efforts to assess local and regional demands for skills have been left to languish since the main body for such work was shuttered last year.
"The UK Commission for Employment and Skills, the main body previously responsible for producing strategic information on skills supply, closed in early 2017, creating a vacuum in terms of government labour market intelligence," it said.
The proposed replacement, in the form of a set of smaller Skills Advisory Panels, are due to work with the Local Enterprise Partnerships – which have been criticised for slow progress, narrow focus, and variable capacities and capabilities.
"Given the nature of the market for high-level STEM skills, we are sceptical as to whether SAPs will be sufficiently aware of national and global skills supply issues to carry out their responsibilities effectively," the MPs said.
A further problem is the state of education in the STEM field. This includes funding and incentives for teacher training, lacklustre careers advice in schools and colleges, insufficient efforts to address gender imbalance, and outdated training schemes.
"The departments have allowed poor quality provision – especially in apprenticeships – to continue for too long without being addressed," the MPs said, adding that some evidence has suggested many programmes "do not constitute real apprenticeships".
Committee chairwoman Meg Hillier said that the government needs to "sharpen its focus on the details", calling on it to provide better advice to pupils, support STEM-focused institutions, weed out poor quality apprenticeships and address the "striking" gender imbalance.
"This is a challenging and long-term project but there are practical steps the government can and should be taking now," she said. ®