News & Insights
for Business Leaders
EXCLUSIVE: Ex-Head of Department of Health reveals future of staff skills

EXCLUSIVE: Ex-Head of Department of Health reveals future of staff skills

Executive Grapevine | Executive Grapevine International Ltd

With predicted increases in automation, and uncertainty on the political and economic landscapes, the British Academy’s Flagship Skills Project on the Value of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, arrives at a time when employers are frantically reassessing employment and recruitment trends – in efforts to future-proof their businesses.

A recent PwC report revealed almost unilateral concern amongst UK CEOs about shortages of workers with key skills.

Worry among top-executives is so great that, together, they ranked concern about potential high-skill worker deficits second - behind more obvious worries about economic forecasts.

And the Government’s State of the Nation report, which concludes that a reduction in need for low-skilled workers could see nine million people fighting for four million jobs, does little to allay employment concerns.

Therefore the Academy’s projects aims, to promote ‘soft-skills’, supplement the government’s new industrial strategy, which has heavy focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills.  

Professor Ian Diamond, Policy Network Chair of Universities UK, explained that the arts, humanities and social sciences need to improve their image, so students and recruiters understand their worth.

“If we are going to have the kind of economic growth and conversion rates in our society, then we need graduates, as well as a population, with the skills the arts, humanities and social sciences bring.”

Speaking exclusively to Business Grapevine, Dame Una O’Brien, the first female Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health, explained that the skills arts graduates possess have the potential to remedy the skills shortage.

“I think there are three skills that come through from arts, humanities and social sciences. Firstly, inquiry: as they generate curiosity and understanding about the methodative inquiry that can be deployed in multiple circumstances.

“The second set of skills that I believe come to the fore in this is evidence: the weighing of evidence; the understanding of different types of evidence; and, also, a proper appreciation about the gaps in evidence.

“Thirdly, the most crucial part is empathy: the ability to walk in the shoes of others, to look at the problem from the perspective of another person, community, region or country.”

Building on O’Brien’s comments, The General Secretary of London School of Economics (LSE), Busayo Twins, noted that, among LSE students and recent graduates, there is a perception that only STEM skills are employable.

“[Arts] skills have less monetary value. When you have big, corporate firms coming to university campuses and saying that maths and number skills are a requirement, students tend to link high pay and prestige with the skills that the employers are asking – which often involve numbers.

Yet the Academy wants to change this perception, as 55% of current students are arts students and over half of current professional leaders and executives, in 30 different countries, studying humanities or social sciences – as a British Council study found out.

Surprisingly, the head of the Ministry of Defence holds an English degree, which O’Brien believes is a demonstration of the utility in being a chameleon-like employee - a key skill set for the multi-career millennial workforce.

She says: “We will all need to be much better at re-inventing ourselves, at learning new skills and applying our own creative skills to design own part in the workplace. That will be the norm in the future: how can I move forward and deploy what I learned in another arena?”

Therefore, as Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, concluded: “The perception that arts and social sciences are soft, mushy and useless, is just plain wrong.”


Image courtesty of Flickr User UK CivilService.