UK SMEs' skills gap brought into focus by COVID-19 disruption

Digital, health and safety, and leadership skills are lacking in UK SMEs as the pandemic has increased the digital transformation need, a survey found.
UK SMEs’ skills gap brought into focus by COVID-19 disruption

COVID-19 highlighted existing skills gaps within small- and medium-size enterprises (SMEs), a recent CIMA-commissioned survey has revealed.

The Mind the Skills Gap Survey found a lack of digital skills, health and safety, and people management and leadership skills were the top three areas that concerned employers at UK SMEs.

The survey revealed the top six skills areas that UK SMEs lack:

  • Digital skills such as e-commerce, coding, data analytics, cybersecurity, and cloud computing (cited by 42% of employers).
  • Health and safety (37%).
  • People management and leadership skills (33%).
  • Job-specific technical skills (32%).
  • Financial skills (31%).
  • Soft skills such as communications, creativity, problem-solving, and emotional intelligence (28%).

Despite the lack of digital skills, two-thirds of SME decision-makers said they have accelerated the digital transformation of their business as a result of COVID-19.

In transforming their organisations digitally, 60% of CFOs expect to spend more time improving digital skills in their finance team, but 50% expect it to be difficult to reach goals in this area.

That’s a finding of a Gartner survey released in mid-November, which also highlighted CFOs’ top two digital priorities: advanced data analytics technologies and tools; and RPA and other workflow automation.

Andrew Harding, FCMA, CGMA, chief executive–Management Accounting at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, said a consistent picture was emerging of the “structural weaknesses in our current and future workforce’s skillset”. He added: “The digital skills divide is widening, and the acute disruption brought on by COVID-19 put this issue into sharp focus.”

Training provision

According to the CIMA research, 65% of employers said that since March 2020, they have invested in training and professional development for their employees.

For those employers not investing in this way, 35% said financial pressure on the business was a reason, 34% said there was too much uncertainty around the economy, and 26% were too busy to make time for additional learning.

In November, ahead of the UK government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, CIMA made a series of recommendations to the UK government on ways to drive economic revival and increase productivity.

They included enhancing the Apprenticeships Scheme in England by changing the levy paid by employers to an Apprenticeship and Skills Levy.

Harding said: “Our research confirms that over 80% of employers would redeploy the Apprenticeship Levy to plug wider skills gaps for new and existing workers if rules on how it can be used were relaxed.”

Future skills

The CIMA research also revealed the top three skills required for the future, as viewed from an SME employer perspective:

  • Nearly half (48%) believe that the ability to quickly adapt to changes in the working environment is an important skill for the future.
  • 35% highlighted the ability to work across a variety of tasks and areas of a business that are outside of a traditional job description.
  • 30% emphasised the ability to accurately predict the future impact of business decisions.

Oliver Rowe ( is an FM magazine senior editor.