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Investing in essential skills could help change the course for the quarter of UK workers set to quit this year

Almost a quarter of UK workers expect to change jobs in the next year, PwC’s Workforce Hopes and Fears survey reports. The survey found that the top reasons for leaving a job are seeking higher pay and being unfulfilled at work.

It’s a challenging outlook for businesses, but there are large potential returns for those who look to skills building opportunities for improvements in employee engagement and retention. This new survey from PwC backs our recent Essential Skills Tracker research looking at the state of essential skills for UK workers.

What are essential skills?

Essential skills are those highly transferable skills that everyone needs to do almost any job, and support the application of technical skills and knowledge: 

According to PwC research, 63% of workers feel they have ‘human-centric skills’, which the Universal Framework describes as essential skills. These skills are not always evident from a person's education or job history, but are essential for success. 

Skills Builder Partnership research finds that the level at which people have mastered these so-called human skills varies greatly among the UK public. So, while 63% believe they have these skills, we should also consider to what effect.

Essential skill score distribution chart - bell graph

Why essential skills matter for retention

21% of people are feeling unsatisfied with their current job, according to PwC. For employers facing their own economic challenges, it’s likely they’ll need to turn to other methods to improve satisfaction. From our own research, we know that opportunities to build essential skills play a key role in individuals feeling satisfied at work. In particular, those with higher levels of essential skills were found to be more likely to be satisfied. In fact, essential skill score is as powerful a predictor of job satisfaction as income.

Then, as employees earn more,  their level of essential skills becomes an even stronger predictor of their job satisfaction. This means that high-performing employees, often those paid more, are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs if they have opportunities to develop their essential skills.

We also find that 56% of people with higher levels of essential skills are the most likely to look for a new job if it offers better professional development opportunities for essential skills.

However, some employees are sceptical about their employer's provision to develop and apply important skills. Employers aren’t always seen as invested in providing opportunities, nor do their employees necessarily think they have the ability to. 

In PwC's research, 21% of participants said they don't believe their employer will offer them the opportunity to apply skills that are important to their career, with 37% saying they lacked confidence in their employer's ability to provide opportunities to develop transferable skills important to their career.

For those 21% who are dissatisfied, a focus on essential skills development could provide meaningful results.

Job satisfaction by essential skill score showing an increase in satisfaction as essential skill score increases

The soft-skill conundrum

PwC finds that over two-thirds of employees (63%) believe soft skills will be important to their careers, echoing the vast majority figure in the Essential Skills Tracker research: 92% believe that essential skills are important for success within their career.

However, almost half (46%) believe employers are overly focused on the narrow confines of job history. 

This is likely in part because employers may not have the necessary language and framework to be able to effectively describe and measure transferable skills. As job history is starting to become, well, history – many employers are looking to focus more tightly on skills, as Sarah Moore, Head of People and Organisation at PwC UK, points out

The bottom line is that to get the right people, and keep them happy, there must be a way of incorporating a skills solution into businesses. This would help clear up the apparent mismatch between the skills employers are seen to be emphasising, and the human, essential skills that employees not only believe they already have, but actually want to develop further. 

The return on building essential skills

Skills Builder’s focused field-work finds that 89% of employees who benefited from learning & development concerned with building essential skills believed that the experience improved their performance in role, with 75% feeling more engaged in their work.

The implication for employers is clear: if you want to improve the engagement and retention of your highest performing employees, provide them with opportunities to build essential skills. Given the considerable direct cash cost of raising incomes, it is likely that building your employees’ essential skills has a significantly higher return on investment.

Employers looking to seize these opportunities should embed a structured and cohesive approach to essential skills across their business. This means not just providing training, but designing roles and performance management in a way that encourages the application and lifelong learning of essential skills. 

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