Directors are shaping tomorrow's workplaces with an array of training and mentoring schemes for young people. The initiatives also help to motivate and retain their own staff
Rocketing youth unemployment, slashed education and training budgets, a trebling of university tuition fees and a skills crisis for employers... there are myriad reasons why businesses must engage more with schools. Hundreds of thousands are involved already. They provide apprenticeships, work experience and mentoring, either directly or through organisations such as Young Enterprise, as well as offering professional development placements for teachers.
Professor Ewart Keep, deputy director of the ESRC Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance, believes that with government spending tightening, the onus on employers to engage with educational establishments will increase. "Obligations on employers loom as do targets on apprenticeship places," he says. John May, chief executive of Young Enterprise, agrees. "Whereas the last government championed it [a link between education and business] themselves, this government has passed the baton to British business. Getting business to grip that responsibility will lead to better prepared young people," he says.
Nick Chambers, director of the Education and Employers Taskforce charity, says partnerships between schools/colleges and employers are vital. "Our future economic prosperity depends on the employability of our young people," he says. And he believes these links are even more important in today's labour market. "There's a wide range of careers and jobs that can be confusing for a young person. Our role is to help young people understand what careers are available and how to get there, whether they do a BTEC or an apprenticeship or go to university. Particularly with the increase in university fees, we need to make sure we give young people as much information as we can and open as many doors to them as possible."
James McCreary, chief executive of Career Academies UK, a charity that boosts young people's employability, believes that educationalists often know little about business. "There is a gap between what you learn at school and what you're going to learn in business. The only people who can bridge that gap are those from business themselves," he says.
Although many schools and colleges already work with employers, IoD director general Miles Templeman believes more schools and colleges must engage with the outside world to give pupils a sense of which direction to take. "Many are willing in theory but are not so good at putting it into practice," he says, adding that business needs to make more effort to engage.
Chambers says high-performing schools—both state and independent—successfully use alumni connections for careers advice and work experience, but that schools based in more challenging areas don't have the same links. "In this country we have nearly two million young people from homes where neither of their parents work. They haven't got those networks to understand what jobs are out there," he says.
Fiona Rawes, education campaign director at Business in the Community (BITC), agrees. "Although there is a lot of activity and interest from the business community it can be difficult to access for schools serving less-advantaged communities," she says. BITC's Business Class project, which unites schools and businesses to help transform secondary education, primarily targets establishments in deprived areas where many pupils are from families with a long history of joblessness.
Business Class was launched in 2006 in response to feedback that felt business engagement in schools was piecemeal and ad hoc. "There was plenty of activity and appetite for engagement but it was not necessarily couched in the most strategic way possible," says Rawes.
The Institute for Education Business Excellence (IEBE) also reports that businesses are seeking more quality in this area. The IEBE was set up in 2009 when businesses, educators and brokers (or Education Business Partnership Organisations, known as EBPOs) felt that in order to strengthen connections, standards needed to be set. There are now 84 EBPOs that have been assured for quality by the IEBE.
"One of the biggest complaints from employers was that they were concerned this area of work lacked quality. That doesn't mean there wasn't any quality, it means there wasn't any evidence of quality,' says Declan Swan, chief executive of the IEBE.
Swan says employers frequently comment that new recuits are not ready for the world of work. "That doesn't mean they can't bake a cake or prepare a banquet. It's about making sure they have the right mental skills to work-attitude and teamwork," he says.
But as McCreary from Career Academies points out, in the finance sector at least, banks are often frustrated because they need to hire 8,000 to 10,000 people each year but say they find it hard to acquire the right standard of employee. Keep, from the ESRC Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance, says he feels disheartened when he hears employers complain about a "skills crisis". He believes there has been much progress in the past 30 years, with a huge rise in higher education and qualification success.
He reckons that if the term "skills shortage" is defined properly, rather than including jobs that can't be filled because of low wages and poor working conditions, then the problem is small by comparison. Some sectors are simply unattractive—in terms of career progression, working conditions and pay levels—and they will lose out to industries that attract the brightest students. He says: "We produce a large number of Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) graduates but many choose not to work in engineering and technology companies. There are real issues about salaries and progression."
This is one reason why Swan thinks more businesses should engage with schools and colleges. "You have to compete with every other industry sector out there, who are all vying for that 14-year-old to be inspired by what they do. This is probably the most cost-effective way you can link with 14-year-olds," he says.
Chambers argues that one of the easiest ways businesses can forge links is through induction and development programmes. "Employees who volunteer in schools do it because they enjoy it and get value out of it, which is great for staff recruitment and retention," he says. "There are also CPD (continuing professional development) benefits-a presentation to a group of students, which can be nerve-wracking, can offer good practice in presentation techniques. Likewise, many businesses say the skills you get by being on a board of governors is good training for staff who want to move up a level." In order to get businesses involved there needs to be a strong business case, he adds. "There's got to be something in it for everybody. It's not about altruism, it's about the bottom line."
But Swan says most employers already recognise the benefits. "They've rehearsed the arguments themselves, that's why they do it. At Key Stage 4 [pupils aged 14 to 16] in the last year, 404,000 employers of all sectors and sizes hosted some form of work-related learning. That was 60,000 more than in the previous year, which was in the depth of the worst recession since the 1920s," he says.
Yet McCreary believes the big challenge for his organisation is to be able to match students with internships. "The demand for what we do is much greater than we can provide," he says. "It's difficult for some companies who are letting someone go to take on a student for six weeks. We need more businesses to be involved across the country."
Case study: Career Academies UK
Set up by the business community in 2002, charity Career Academies UK, helps employers, schools and colleges work together to raise the aspirations of young people aged 16 to 19. Around 3,000 employee volunteers from 900 UK organisations contribute time and skills to academies, as speakers, one-to-one mentors, summer interns or by joining local advisory boards.
Insurance group RSA has worked with the charity since 2005. James Wallace, group head of corporate responsibility, says the insurer became involved for two main reasons. First, it wanted to use education to tackle root causes of social trends that led to insurance claims. Second, RSA was keen to encourage new talent. "Having the right risk managers and actuaries is vital for an ongoing concern," comments Wallace, who says staff help drive the initiative. "Employees say they want to give others the same opportunities they had in life."
More than 120 UK schools and colleges, largely in disadvantaged urban areas, are involved in Career Academies. Students follow a rigorous two-year programme alongside a curriculum equivalent to taking at least three A levels, enabling them to progress to higher education or the world of work.
Lauren, 17, a student at All Saints High School, Kirkby, is studying for A levels in business studies, finance and English language. As part of a Career Academy programme, she has attended presentations on interview techniques and presenting skills from companies including Bupa and RSA, received one-to-one mentoring, and spent a summer at RSA in Liverpool, working as a customer manager in the payments department.
"My colleagues set me a wide range of tasks so I could gain a better understanding of what jobs people do and how each one fits in with the organisation. The experience helped me realise that working is less daunting than I first imagined," says Lauren.
The partnership has given RSA staff an opportunity to learn new skills and develop talents, helping their own career development. "You can't always get access to coaching and line-management opportunities straight away. Working as a mentor gives you the potential to do that," says Wallace.
Case study: Teen Tech
In 2009, engineering firm the Torftech Group advertised for a process engineer. Out of 300 applicants none were from the UK, three came from continental Europe and the rest hailed from India and elsewhere. Torftech chairman Chris Dodson bewailed this fact to science broadcaster Maggie Philbin, who replied that she wished she was able to talk to youngsters before they decided on a career.
Dodson continues: "There is nobody to help them-their parents can't guide them because they don't know, their teachers have never had a job in these industries so they don't know. So why would they choose to be anything other than an X Factor contender?"
Philbin and Dodson set up TeenTech, a lively one-day event that helps young teenagers see the wide range of career possibilities in science, engineering and technology. It is a collaboration between organisations such as the IoD (Dodson is chairman of IoD South), the Institution of Engineering and Technology, and universities and companies. The aim is to show young people what life is like in the modern science and technology workplace.
Dodson says projects such as TeenTech aim to make sought-after skills more available so it becomes easier to set up and operate hi-tech businesses, a sector pivotal to the UK's hopes of competing with India and China.
A TeenTech day starts with a quick survey of 300 students to gain an understanding of their attitudes towards scientists and engineers. "It's always the same stereotypical assumption that a scientist looks like Einstein with a shock of white hair," says Dodson.
The youngsters are then allowed to experiment, handling leading-edge technology and, most importantly, to meet the engineers, technicians and scientists behind their 21st-century lives. The goal is to make science fun and break down stereotypes. This year a female mechanical engineer working as a snowboard designer led teenagers in a challenge to design snowboards.
At the end of a TeenTech day students complete another survey to see if perceptions have altered. "In the last two years more than three-quarters have changed their views about careers they might like to choose," says Dodson.
Case study: Business Initiative for Schools
Business mentor Peter Heath came up with the idea for Business Initiative for Schools in 2009. He'd been working as a Young Enterprise volunteer with a school in Taunton but it wasn't quite doing what he wanted. "There was one boy who we really thought had potential. He didn't fit into the academic groove at all but he had real talent. My partner suggested I mentor him and then I thought that if I could do this for him, perhaps we could do it for other children."
Heath wanted to create a more sustainable initiative that continued beyond one school year and that could potentially lead to discovering the next Microsoft or Virgin.
The aim of the initiative is to provide schemes, mentoring, advice and support to schools and students to help develop their business ideas. "There is a big gap in the education system for business education. Kids don't get any support at all if they have a business idea," says Heath. According to Heath one of the problems is most teachers have no business experience and don't know how to make contact with the business community. Many businesses wanting to give something back don't know how to cross that bridge either. "We can facilitate that," he says.
The initiative, which started in Taunton, Somerset, has expanded into Exeter in Devon and is currently working with nine schools. Heath says the sessions are inspirational stuff. "You feel inspired and the pupils come up with great ideas. These young people are unfettered, they don't have all the constraints we grown-ups have," he says.
Case study: Harris Academy Bermondsey
Ten years ago just 19 per cent of the pupils at Harris Academy Bermondsey (formally Aylwin Girls' School) achieved A-C grade GCSEs and only 63 per cent finished and went onto college. Since the academy started a mentoring programme 10 years ago the number of girls accomplishing five A-C grade GCSEs has risen to 87 per cent. Pupils now have the support of 150 mentors from businesses including PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Ernst and Young and Deutsche Bank who support them in their last two years as they approach GCSE. The scheme has had a huge impact on the pupils' performance, exam results and motivation.
"The aim was to link up with businesses to do two things," explains Roger Hiskey, student mentor co-ordinator, "first, to help girls prepare for their GCSEs and second, to focus on where they would go on leaving the academy." The mentors also help girls prepare CVs and college applications.
The mentors, who are all trained and CRB-checked, meet pupils before or after school. Broken appointments are rare. Hiskey was surprised by the popularity the programme has with the girls. "The scheme is voluntary but the girls are clamouring to be on it. They perceive it as very smart to have a mentor of this kind. It's not a question of failure, it's about doing well and wanting to do even better," he says.
The scheme is evaluated and the information fed back to each individual company so they can see what their mentors have achieved. "It is very much a partnership. Most of the mentors who have been with us for any length of time believe they are deriving benefit and satisfaction themselves and that is why they carry on doing it," says Hiskey. PwC has been providing staff volunteers for 11 years. As well as mentoring the pupils, the accountancy firm has someone on the academy's board of governors and has also mentored the head teacher and other teaching staff. "It's part of a holistic approach that we wanted to give to the school," says PwC's head of community affairs, David Adair.
Adair says one of the reasons for partnering with the academy was to increase the life chances of the people in the communities in which PwC operates. But he says the firm also has a selfish reason of wanting a better-equipped pool of talent to recruit from. "Part of it is to spark an interest in the financial services and getting the pupils to think about the fact they might like a job at somewhere like PwC. They probably wouldn't think they could work somewhere like PwC unless they meet people from the firm and see they have something to aspire to," says Adair.
The other reason for partnering with the academy was to develop its own people by linking them into a different experience. "Staff come back motivated and inspired but also with an understanding of how privileged they are. The experience helps staff see things from a different angle and to make business decisions based on a more rounded view. These young people are lively. To mentor someone like that really challenges our people. And those staff that are volunteering tend to get the best performance ratings too."