We can’t just rely on teachers to fill the skills gap

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Pupils in class to represent the skills gap

We can’t just rely on teachers to fill the skills gap – business needs to play a hands-on role, writes Mark Boleat

Teach First’s recent report highlighted the need for trained careers teachers in every school to avoid advice becoming “fragmented” and “ineffective”. But this is only part of the problem: while schools have an important role to play in preparing young people to succeed academically, it is employers who need to light their path into the workforce.

Recent reform to careers advice provision has left many schools floundering and unable to provide pupils with impartial advice. The Sutton Trust revealed that as many as two-thirds of teachers are pushing pupils towards A-levels and university, without presenting apprenticeships or other vocational training as viable options. No wonder we are in a situation where many teenagers and graduates lack the requisite workplace skills to get on the careers ladder.

This is reinforced by the dwindling number (15 per cent) of 16-17-year-olds who combine study with a Saturday job, down from almost 30 per cent just over a decade ago. Without this exposure to the workplace from an early age, young people are leaving education lacking essential employability skills such as customer service, teamwork and communication. Today, such soft skills are worth £88bn to the UK economy, but it’s predicted that by 2020 some half a million workers won’t have them – and will be held back as a result. Faced with the most academically qualified generation, employers and recruiters are realising that successful outcomes in the workplace depend on more than just exam results.

While youth unemployment figures are nowhere near the levels of other European countries, such as Spain and Italy, they do remain stubbornly high compared with the rest of the population. It is an unfortunate position when so many young people are looking for work and businesses can’t fill the vacancies. If employers want to benefit from a highly skilled and motivated workforce, there has to be an element of growing your own talent. For example, at the City of London Corporation, we have just launched the first Level 3 apprenticeship in procurement. Little is taught about careers in procurement; consequently there has been a problem recruiting young people, leaving it to become an ‘ageing’ industry. The hope is the apprenticeship will help learners to strengthen core skills and industry to plug the skills gap.

As well as offering apprenticeships and traineeships, businesses should explore ways of engaging with schools. Work experience is a tried-and-tested means of letting pupils sample the work environment and the skills and behaviour needed to thrive. And the benefits can be a two-way street: young people often bring a greater familiarity with IT and social media that the workforce could benefit from.

As well as inviting young people in, employers should make time to get out. Eighty-eight per cent of 16-17-year-olds surveyed by City & Guilds said employer visits were the most useful form of careers advice. This could involve them taking part in school careers fairs, or delivering a talk to pupils, sharing insight into their own career path. This sort of interaction is essential if young people are to be able to make fully informed decisions about their future; from knowing which skills are valued to where the growth sectors lie and, therefore, which subjects to pursue.

Teachers do a tremendous job in preparing students for life after school, but they cannot be expected to know about every career – and the mind-boggling 607 unique job titles. This is where businesses need to step in to ensure their sector is represented and they are playing a role in setting the skills agenda. There are, of course, a number of mentoring opportunities where business leaders can really add value. We fund an initiative called Subjects in the City, delivered by Inspire!, which involves City workers and local teachers working together to enrich the curriculum and incorporate expert information – about what it’s like to work at a bank or legal firm, for example – into classroom or extra-curricular activities.

We are facing a crisis. More than 61 per cent of businesses are unable to find the talent with the skills they need. There’s an ongoing debate about reform in careers advice, but business leaders shouldn’t wait to act. They have the power to reduce the skills gap by increasing engagement with schools and preventing the emergence of another generation of over-qualified under-employed young people.

Mark Boleat is policy chairman for the City of London Corporation

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Mark Boleat

Mark Boleat

Mark Boleat is policy chairman for the City of London Corporation

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