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The UK Government’s Employer Skills Survey (ESS), which in 2019 was undertaken by 81,000 employers in the UK (excluding Scotland), grouped skills into ‘technical and practical skills’ and ‘people and personal skills’. Technical and practical skills include specific knowledge needed to perform a role, while people and personal skills include time management, task prioritisation and teamworking. Upskilling refers to the improvement of an individual’s skillset while retraining refers to developing skills to enable a change in an individual’s role.

Key points: 

  • The UK faces a range of challenges that will require workers to upskill or retrain. Productivity levels in the UK have remained weak since 2008 and the coronavirus pandemic has led to significant disruption of the labour market. A host of longer-term societal trends such as automation, an ageing population and the ‘greening’ of the economy will affect the type and nature of job roles available.
  • There are mismatches between the supply and demand of skills in the UK workforce. The UK Government’s 2019 ESS reported that 24% of vacancies could not be filled due to skill shortages and 13% of employers reported that some of their employees were under-skilled for their roles. Employers estimated that 2.2 million workers were either overqualified or over-skilled for their role.
  • The UK Government and the devolved administrations are pursuing a range of policies to strengthen the UK’s skills base. In May 2021, the UK Government introduced the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill to Parliament, which provides legislation for reforms lait out in the Skills for Jobs White Paper published in January 2021.
  • The UK Government have defined adult skills and lifelong learning provision as “education, advice and training for adults (19+) who want to upskill, reskill or move into employment.” Adult education is an important part of lifelong learning and caters for a range of learners of varying ages, abilities, subjects and motivations.
  • Participation in adult education in England has fallen from 4.4m in 2003/04 to 1.5m in 2019/20. In the same period, funding for adult education fell by nearly two-thirds. Investment in and provision of training in the workplace has also fallen.
  • Participation in adult education is least likely for adults who are older, lower skilled or experience educational disadvantages. Adult education can act as a vehicle for social mobility, however, access is unequal and appears to favour those with educational and socioeconomic capital.
  • There are various barriers which may prevent participation in, and the delivery of, adult education. These include dispositional barriers (where an individual’s attitudes and expectations limit participation), situational barriers (where an individual’s personal circumstances limit participation) and institutional barriers (where structural and organisational factors limit access to training).
  • Adult learning is associated with a range of positive economic and well-being outcomes. Adult education is associated with improved employment and earnings options as well as a host of wider benefits, including future engagement with learning, community participation and wellbeing.


POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer-reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

Members of the POST Board*

Tera Allas (McKinsey & Company)

Chris Butcher (Workers’ Educational Association)

Dr Jonathan Cribb (The Institute for Fiscal Studies)

Helen Chicot (Rochdale Borough Council)

Department for Education*

Stephen Evans (The Learning & Work Institute)*

Katherine Emms (The Edge Foundation)*

Professor Alison Fuller (University College London)*

Julian Gravatt (Association of Colleges)*

Professor Anne Green (University of Birmingham)*

Professor Irena Grugulis (University of Leeds)*

Dr Kathleen Henehan (The Resolution Foundation)*

Professor John Holford (University of Nottingham)*

Professor Ewart Keep (University of Oxford)*

Cheryl Lloyd (The Nuffield Foundation)

Dr Daria Luchinskaya (University of Strathclyde)*

Professor Sandra McNally (University of Surrey)*

Dr Susan Pember (HOLEX)*

Professor Tom Schuller

Dr Cath Sleeman (Nesta)*

Daniel Sandford Smith (The Gatsby Foundation)*

Louis Trupia-Melluish (The Open University)

Professor Sir Alan Tuckett (University of Wolverhampton)

Elena Wilson (The Edge Foundation)*

* denotes individuals and organisations that acted as external reviews for this briefing.

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