Insight: The size of Scotland's skills gap

When Poppy Dennis wrote to education secretary John Swinney last week, urging him to help appoint a dedicated class teacher at her Lochaber school, her letter pinpointed the troubles in recruitment faced by Scotland's education system, but her opening plea of 'Please can you help me' could apply to many sectors of the Scottish economy.

There appears to be a lack of adequate training for chefs. Picture: Getty/iStockphoto
There appears to be a lack of adequate training for chefs. Picture: Getty/iStockphoto

From mental health nurses and chefs through to construction managers and software developers, there is a gulf between supply and demand when it comes to certain professions.

The most authoritative snapshot of the problem is provided by the Employer Skills Survey, compiled by the now defunct UK Commission for Employment and Skills.

The survey, now the responsibility of the Department for Education, consists of more than 87,000 telephone interviews with employers across the UK, including more than 6,000 in Scotland. Its most recent report, published last May, found that nearly one in five employers (19 per cent) in Scotland had at least one vacancy, up from 15 per cent in 2013 and 14 per cent in 2011.

Veteran tech entrepreneur Ian Ritchie noted the lack students graduating in computing. Picture: Jon Savage

In all, there were 73,600 vacancies and crucially, 24 per cent of unfilled positions were classed as skill shortage vacancies; jobs that were proving difficult to fill due to a lack of applicants with the right skills, qualifications and experience.

It would not be surprising to see such a trend met with concern, but Chris Brodie (below), lead head of skills planning and sector development at Skills Development Scotland, believes the increase in vacancies offers cause for optimism.

“I think it is about employers moving back into recruitment mode – more vacancies in the labour market is a sign of health,” he explains.

With a key role at Scotland’s national skills agency, Brodie is well placed to pinpoint what needs to be done. The body has a team of 13 industry specialists who work with different groups from across the economy designed to, as Brodie puts it, allow “government to talk to industry” – identifying skills gaps, prospective solutions, and ensuring training and education meet the demands of business.

Veteran tech entrepreneur Ian Ritchie noted the lack students graduating in computing. Picture: Jon Savage

“Skills shortages are a permanent feature of the economy – four years ago, we’d have been looking at challenges in oil and gas and engineering,” said Brodie.

“A number of things drive skill shortages, such as the economic cycle, the rise and fall of industries, previous investment decisions, and the perceptions of career prospects in certain sectors.

“We’ve tried to get away from a position where we address skill shortages because a particular industry shouts the loudest and says, ‘We’ve got a problem’ – you don’t actually consider what’s underpinning that problem.”

Not everyone believes the links between industry and universities and colleges are strong enough. One senior recruitment expert points out that there are around 400 young people studying forensic science every year, with “about five job openings every two years”. He asks: “Do we have a structured approach? No.”

The real elephant in the room, however, is Brexit, given that an estimated 115,000 EU nationals are employed in Scotland – a workforce concentrated in sectors such as food and drink, tourism and manufacturing.

The continuing uncertainty surrounding free movement and the status of EU nationals is of significant concern to the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland.

“Some business owners are already reporting that many of their non-UK EU workers are choosing to relocate,” explains Stuart Mackinnon, the federation’s external affairs manager. “With one in four Scottish small employers with at least a single member of staff from outside the UK, this is a huge issue. The big headache is that change is likely to happen very quickly and Scotland’s skills and education system is hardly nimble.”

But what are specific challenges faced by some of the main sectors? Below, Scotland on Sunday takes a look at five key industries.


The recent opening of the Queensferry Crossing was a timely reminder of Scotland’s prowess in vast civil engineering projects, demonstrating what a skilled and experienced workforce can achieve.

The project was also a shot in the arm for the construction sector, which was hit harder than most during the economic downturn. But even now, the industry’s recovery is still tentative, with construction output in Scotland projected to grow a percentage point every year for the next five years.

The fact there are fewer big ticket infrastructure projects on the books means the overall number of people in the sector is projected to drop from its current level of around 226,000 to approximately 215,000 by 2021.

But the Scottish Government’s target of delivering 50,000 affordable homes during the lifetime of this parliament means there will be plenty of work, and a need for new recruits.

According to the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), as many as 31,000 people are due to retire from the industry in the next decade, and some jobs are in major demand.

According to Skills Development Scotland, there is a shortfall in managerial and specialist skills in construction. Indeed, the CITB says that non-construction professional, technical and IT staff will be the most sought after over the next five years, with around 2,500 additional recruits required. There will also be the need for an additional 1,550 plumbers and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning technicians, 1,500 labourers, 850 trade supervisors and 750 other construction process managers.

While only 11 per cent of employers reported at least one unfilled vacancy in the previous 12 months, the proportion of those jobs that are not being taken up due to skills shortages is extremely high at 46 per cent according to the most recent Employer Skills Survey.

One major barrier to progress is the sector’s inability to attract young people. Scottish Funding Council statistics show there were 20,077 enrolments by further education students in construction related courses in 2005/6, but just 17,356 in 2015/16

To address recruitment needs, the CITB has formed a Home Building Skills Partnership with the Home Builders Federation to train thousands of new entrants and experienced workers alike by 2019, while last year, it invested £56.6m to support 24,600 apprenticeships.

Ian Hughes (left), the CITB’s partnerships director in Scotland, said: “The reality in Scotland is that in ten years’ time, around 20 per cent of the industry workforce will have retired. The job opportunities in construction for everyone are therefore truly vast.”


The revelation earlier this month that a shortage of maths teachers had forced the head at Edinburgh’s Trinity Academy to appeal to parents for their help sparked wide-ranging debate about the difficulties Scottish schools are having in recruiting teachers.

At the start of the new school term last month, Deputy First Minister John Swinney indicated that the BBC estimate of 690 teacher vacancies across the country was an “unwelcome” figure.

For years, the government itself has not routinely collected information on vacancy numbers. That is changing now, with the government and Cosla surveying local authorities last year and this year.

The findings have yet to be published, but it would appear the 690 figure represents a sizeable increase; in 2010, the last year in which the government collated data, there were just 354 unfilled posts.

The problem is particularly acute at secondary level and extends beyond maths teachers.

In a letter to the Scottish Funding Council sent this February, Stuart Robb, chair of the government’s Teacher Workforce Planning Advisory Group, pointed out that there is a “projected need for a significant increase in the secondary PGDE intake”. The letter highlights those areas where the need is especially pronounced. For 2017, the government indicated the need for 247 student English teachers, 237 in maths, 135 in modern languages, 124 in technical education, 112 in art and 106 in home economics, all across secondary education.

The Scottish Government recently extended its Teaching Makes People campaign, a recruitment drive which is now targeting English and home economics teachers, as well as those in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) subjects. It is one of a number of new strategies, including controversial fast-track teacher training courses, designed to address the skills gap.

Much is dependent on their success; in 2016, Scotland fell short of meeting the target of securing 1,355 new student secondary teachers by 157, a worrying omen given the target jumped to 1,750 for 2017, and will rise again to 1,800 next year.

Larry Flanagan (left), general secretary of the EIS, Scotland’s biggest teaching union, said: “The EIS believes that this difficulty is linked to comparatively low pay in teaching, compared with other graduate professions, lack of career progression opportunities and the excessive workload demands that continue to be placed on teachers.”


There are few areas as important – or politically sensitive – to the Scottish economy as the NHS, and with a total of 138,931 staff, it is also the nation’s biggest employer.

But the level of unfilled posts is, in places, stark, providing ample ammunition for those who accuse the Scottish Government of being reckless stewards of the health service.

Data from NHS Scotland’s Information Services Division show that as of June this year, there was a record number (476) of unfilled consultancy roles, with nearly half (228) of them vacant for six months or more. Some consultancy specialisms are worse affected than others, with 51 vacancies in clinical radiology, 45 in anaesthetics and 13 in general psychiatry.

A total of 5.2 per cent of all nursing and midwifery posts are currently vacant, the equivalent of 3,231 jobs.

There are some roles that are proving especially hard to fill. Across the country, there are 435 mental health nursing posts lying empty – in part due to pension changes, allowing workers to retire early – and 162 health visiting vacancies.

There are a further 543 vacancies in allied health professions staff, which includes the likes of physiotherapists and speech therapists. Again, the shortfall cuts deepest when it comes to certain jobs, with 171 physiotherapist vacancies, 122 empty radiography posts, and 107 occupational therapist positions unfilled.

In the summer, the Scottish Government established a new nationwide workforce planning group tasked with revamping recruitment and retention in the NHS. Action plans are due to be drawn up for health boards by early next year, but already, proposals aired include increased use of bursary schemes.

Matt McLaughlin, head of health at Unison Scotland, said the steps were welcome, but pointed out the challenge was formidable.

“We’ve obviously got concerns about the short-term gap, and how that impacts on patients and delivery,” he said.

“It’d be easy to say we need to train another 1,000 nurses, but I know we don’t have another 1,000 nurse training places; universities don’t have the capacity.

“There is work being undertaken on career patterns, including nursing. We should be better able to take band 2 and band 3 nursing assistants, who are already committed to the service, and train them to be registered nurses. The current system has a way of doing that via the Open University but it’s not being significantly invested in.”


Scotland’s tech sector may be synonymous with high-profile firms such as Skyscanner, FanDuel and FreeAgent, but the digital revolution is increasingly blurring the line between industries. There are more than 91,600 tech professionals working in Scotland, yet only 36,000 work in dedicated tech businesses. The remainder are employed in sectors such as finance, energy, engineering and healthcare, evidence that tech will have a crucial role to play in the Scottish economy of the future.

The tech industry itself contributed £3.9bn to the Scottish economy in 2015, and is forecast to be the fastest growing sector through to 2024 in terms of gross value added (38 per cent), expanding more than twice as fast as the overall economy (17.5 per cent).

Brodie said that a few years ago there was concern that universities and colleges were “about five or six years behind the industry”. Encouraging closer ties between business and education – thanks to initiatives like the Digital World campaign, not to mention £6.5m in government funding – has helped close that gulf if not eradicate it.

The main task now is meeting demand. A 2016 report by the Digital Scotland partnership showed over a third (38 per cent) of employers have vacancies, while 82 per cent said they found it difficult to recruit the right technical skills and experience. Over a third (37 per cent) were recruiting from abroad to help fill the gaps. The demand is highest for technical level roles, with a particular shortage of software developers.

Ian Ritchie (right), a veteran tech entrepreneur, warned that not enough was being done to attract entrants.

He said: “There has been some very good work done by the likes of CodeClan to train people for a digital career, but it is just not enough. The tech sector is looking for more than 11,000 people to enter the industry every year, but there are only around 3,000 students graduating in computing from universities.”

According to Ritchie, that has led to a dependence on foreign staff. “With several of my companies I have got people in from places like Barcelona,” he said. “But given everything that is happening with Brexit, that is going to be increasingly difficult.”

Although there has been a sharp rise of 46 per cent in the number of people undertaking modern apprenticeships in digital technology, data collated by the Scottish Funding Council shows that while there were 67,989 enrolments on further education computing courses in 2005/6, the number plummeted to 22,526 in 2015/16

There is also a problem at secondary school level, where the number of computing teachers stood at just 598 in 2015; in 2005, there were 802.


This is the industry most vulnerable to the potentially seismic impact on the Scottish economy of Brexit.

The latest data from the long-running Labour Force Survey, compiled by the Office for National Statistics, shows 18 per cent of the industry’s workforce in Scotland – around 36,000 staff – is made up of migrants. In the restaurant and hotel trades, the ratio jumps to 30 per cent and 24 per cent respectively.

The Scottish Tourism Alliance (STA) estimates there will be a recruitment shortfall of around 10,000 to 20,000 workers per annum from 2019 if there is no new migration into the sector, existing EU nationals are not required to leave, and the recruitment of staff from the UK and the rest of the world remains constant.

It wants to see more apprenticeships, increased support for vocational and on-the-job training, more suitable accommodation for seasonal workers, and more broadly, a change in the perception of tourism as a “poor career”.

According to the Employer Skills Survey, 7.2 per cent of Scottish hotel and restaurant workers – about 9,300 staff – lack proficiency in their current role, making it the second worst performing sector behind manufacturing for skills gaps.

The most recent research, from 2015, shows over one in four (27 per cent) hotels and restaurants – around 2,305 establishments – reported at least one unfilled vacancy in the previous 12 months, much higher than the Scottish average. Over a fifth (22 per cent) of those vacancies were attributed to skills shortages.

Demand, quite clearly, is high. An analysis of the sector by Skills Development Scotland, published last September, found that between 2012 and 2022, it will need to recruit 32,700 elementary workers – the likes of catering assistants and domestics – some 15,700 in managerial and senior roles, and a further 9,600 skilled tradespeople.

Skills gaps are notable in front-of-house and housekeeping staff. The worst affected role directly impacts on Scotland’s enviable reputation as a haven for foodies. Employers have told Skills Development Scotland that the way in which modern apprenticeship programmes are structured prioritises the delivery of lower level qualifications, which “limits the ability” to develop higher level skills for chefs.

Indeed, the Scottish Funding Council data shows the number of enrolments in food technology and catering courses fell from 27,708 in 2005/6 to 13,137 in 2015/6.

Caroline Warburton, national strategy delivery coordinator at the STA, said: “Businesses are struggling to find people to fill vacancies, particularly in rural areas and for certain roles such as chefs.” She added: “There are genuine concerns that these shortages may only be exacerbated by us leaving the EU.”