British Prime Minister Tony Blair may be leaving office within days, but with research suggesting that school-leavers are still being churned out unprepared for the world, his mantra of "education, education, education" is sounding increasingly hollow. Three quarters of British firms are unable to fill key positions because there simply are not enough people with the right skills to go around, with businesses in London feeling the squeeze the hardest, the poll by the Confederation of British Industry and accountants KPMG has concluded.
In fact skills shortages among British firms are getting sharply worse, it found Ė with 74 per cent reporting problems finding skilled workers, up from just over six out of 10 a year ago and half in January 2005.
Four-fifths of the 126 London employers polled expect to encounter further shortages over the next six months, the survey gloomily predicted.
With figures from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development yesterday suggesting that almost eight out of 10 British businesses found it a struggle last year to hang on to their staff, the outlook is great for talented job hunters but bleak for employers with gaps to plug or those without good qualifications.
While employers recognised the UK government had tried to reform education and training, particularly when it came to tackling basic skills deficiencies among young people, seven out of 10 remained dissatisfied with the results, and with the calibre of school-leaver or graduate they were being forced to hire.
After skills, business leaders cited transport and regulation as the main factors inhibiting success, and called for greater government focus on updating Britain's creaking transport system Ė with more than eight out of 10 saying problems with London's public transport system had damaged their business' productivity.
More positively, more than nine out of 10 rated London as "a good place to do business" and more than three quarters were optimistic about their prospects for the next six months.
Almost half said the total earnings of their business has increased faster than normal over the past six months, compared with 7 per cent who said less.
Richard Lambert, CBI director-general, said: "London is one of the world's most dynamic and successful cities and is going from strength to strength, with business positive about the future.
"However it will shock many to discover that the city has the highest unemployment rate of any region in the UK while, at the same time, employers are increasingly struggling to fill skilled job vacancies.
"The government and Ken Livingstone are aware of the situation but we need a step-change in education and training delivery to ensure we have the highly-skilled workforce we need to stay ahead of the global competition," he added.
A CBI report last summer, commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills, found that one in three firms sent staff for remedial literacy and numeracy lessons.
Ian Barlow, KPMG London Office Senior Partner, said there needed to be an open approach to immigration to enable businesses to fill their skills gaps more effectively.
Domestic skills and training provision, particularly in London, also needed to be overhauled, he said.
Among other findings, the survey reported that bureaucracy and slow decision-making were business leaders' biggest bugbears, followed by employment and planning regulations.
Two thirds of employers highlighted the cost, availability and quality of housing in London as a barrier to staff recruitment and retention.
And more than three quarters of firms had set up continuity plans in case of a major incident such as a bird flu pandemic or terror attacks.
More than four out of 10 measured their carbon emissions or energy use and 45 per cent had energy-saving strategies in place.
A third of firms had either relocated parts of their business off-shore or were considering doing so, with India and the European Union the most popular destinations and financial and IT services the most likely operations to be transferred.