Widespread skills shortages are dealing a major blow to competitiveness in the UK's small firms sector, according to a new survey.
The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) survey of 343 small firms reveals views on the nature of skills shortages and identifies measures being taken by firms to address the problem.
Almost one third of respondent firms believe that inadequate levels of skills in sales and management staff are having an adverse effect on their ability to compete.
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Computing and IT skills shortages remain acute, with firms reporting particular deficiencies among managerial/ professional (56 per cent) and clerical/office (54 per cent) staff.
The survey also indicates that small companies are not convinced that the education system is geared to meet their workforce needs. Over 60 per cent of firms believe that school leavers lack basic writing skills, with the same complaint being levied at graduates by 38 per cent of respondents. More than half of those companies responding were also critical of graduates' grasp of the business world.
Dr Ian Peters, deputy director general of the BCC, said: "Skills shortages hit small firms hardest and the danger exists that, unless more appropriate and effective solutions are found to improve the quality of the available workforce, growth in the UK will be severely impeded.
"The education system is clearly failing to meet the needs of the small business community and this is a cause for increasing concern."
The survey reveals that the majority of small firms (82 per cent) provide training to their employees, mostly comprising on-the-job training (83 per cent) or specific short courses (82 per cent).
Only 12 per cent of respondents operate "Employee Development Schemes" or support non-work related training. However, 83 per cent of these companies find them successful in motivating and developing staff.
Compared to the results of a similar survey two years ago there has been no significant improvement in take-up of Investors In People or NVQs. One third of businesses use NVQ standard training and firms remain unconvinced by the business relevance (58 per cent) or quality (47 per cent) of NVQs.
Fifty per cent of small firms have no intention of seeking to achieve the Investors In People standard. Lack of management time was cited as the main reason by 44 per cent of respondents.
Giles Palmer, regional manager of London-based business finance specialists Alex Lawrie, said: "This survey shows that basic skills required by employers are often seriously lacking. Tackling skills deficiencies begins with the education system. Small businesses are prepared to train the workforce but they do not expect to provide the basics."
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