Three-in-four businesses in Northern Ireland fear they will be unable to find sufficiently skilled people for new vacancies.
A survey released today indicated that as many as 84.3% of businesses here expect to increase the number of higher-skilled roles over the coming years. Yet 72.5% fear they will be unable to do so.
The Educating For The Modern World survey is produced by Pearson Business School in partnership with the CBI.
Overall, employers reported graduate recruitment was on the rise last year, with 31.2% of businesses reporting an increase, compared to 10.4% reporting a decrease.
The education and skills survey also noted that 86.5% of employers here still consider a 2:1 degree a good measure of academic ability. However, it found that businesses look first for aptitude and readiness for work, with 48% of employers highlighting these factors as the most important consideration when recruiting school, college and university leavers.
Furthermore, 68% of employers ranked wider behaviours and attributes such as resilience, problem-solving and team work as among their top three considerations.
The report also highlighted a stark drop in the number of apprentices being hired locally owing to the implementation of the Apprenticeship Levy in April 2017. The number of firms offering apprenticeship programmes dropped from 90% in 2017 to 70.5% in 2018, with 72.3% of firms involved in apprenticeship programmes reporting difficulties in recruitment.
Over a third of businesses (34.3%) said they had taken the decision to absorb the levy as an added cost of doing business. When asked how to best improve the levy, most employers here suggested allowing the use of funds to cover a wider range of costs for training (64.5%).
A significant number also called for greater flexibility in spending levy funds, while more than half wanted less bureaucracy.
Stephen Kelly of Manufacturing NI said: "Across all of the manufacturing industry, firms are reporting a loss of skilled workers and this is becoming more pronounced as foreign nationals are choosing to return to their home countries.
"These are roles that aren't usually filled by people from Northern Ireland, usually because they aren't interested in taking them on.
"Skills are constantly reported as the number one factor impacting on the future success of firms here and, in addition, many of our businesses pay the levy but don't have access to the money, which makes it a significant extra cost for firms.
"Greater emphasis in schools is needed to encourage students into careers where they can earn and learn."
The survey highlighted that stronger links between businesses and schools are needed with 20.7% of businesses reporting an increase in engagement with young people compared to 6.9% reporting a decrease in 2018.
Colin Neill of Hospitality Ulster said: "We have huge concerns about the growing skills gap and deficit, particularly in the hospitality sector... and need the Assembly and Executive to get back as soon as possible to urgently address this as we are a key driver of the economy with around 60,000 people working in the sector.
"We also have significant issues around labour shortages here. For example, we will need another 2,000 chefs by 2024, and the concerns around Brexit have done little to help."