Parallel tracks

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There’s nothing new in young people and their parents wanting to know what it takes to get ahead after they leave formal education. What are the things they’ll need for that first step on the job ladder, and to keep climbing up; and how and where do you get them? These are the questions that every generation concerns itself with.

Neither is there anything new in employers being clear about the sort of young people they’re looking for - a healthy attitude, great workplace skills, a bit of know-how under your belt - the basic building blocks of career advice haven’t really changed all that much.

But the world is now moving so fast that we cannot rely on the things we’ve always just accepted. The technological revolution has gone far beyond a short, sharp, spike in the timeline of history. It’s a way of life, where the things we don’t know and can’t do today become the everyday occurrences of everyone’s tomorrow. A world where political borders mean less and less, as ideas and people travel ever more freely about. Where barriers to entry tumble, and competition races for the best jobs and the best people. In this 21st century world that values not just what you know, but also what you can do, keeping yourself relevant has never been more challenging.

Against this backdrop we’ve been working with the CBI in the UK to look more closely at what employers there look for in the young people leaving education and heading into the world of work. And we’ve discovered a vivid picture, where a list of exams passed and grades achieved is no longer the only passport to moving on and up. Attitudes and character (85%) now ranks well ahead of qualifications (39%) or academic results (31%) as the most important factors when recruiting.

But it seems that when businesses look to these ‘new’ measures of suitability, they become worried.

The survey of 310 UK companies, which together employ over a million people, reveals that more than half (55%) think they won’t be able to find enough workers with the skills they need; 39% are currently concerned by the attitudes of school and college leavers to work, and 61% are not satisfied by young people’s self-management and resilience.

It is overwhelmingly clear from the research that employers are looking for education to do a better job at preparing young people for the workplace - to turn out better communicators, team-workers, leaders, never-giver-uppers. But there is also concern about getting the basics right too; that there are too many school leavers unable to do the fundamentals of reading, writing and counting well enough. Nor do businesses think that young people have a necessary awareness of the world outside their school gates - half of firms want this as a priority in schools for 14-18 year olds. The upshot is that close to a third (31%) of firms point to having had to organise remedial training in core skills for some school/college leavers.

This is not a lone struggle being fought by businesses. I do not know anyone alive who does not want to see schools everywhere work as well as possible for preparing young people for their futures. In separate research we found that - globally - increasing career skills is the top priority for parents and students, and scored very highly among teachers too.

Nor should people read the survey and jump to some knee-jerk conclusion that UK schools aren’t working. Hundreds of thousands of young people leave schools every year, ready and able to flourish. Happy, too! We need to continue cherishing the things that so many schools and teachers ignite in young people every day, around the world - a natural human curiosity for knowledge, and a love of learning, literature, and the arts.

Rather, the message here is about creating an environment where communication, teamwork, grit, and leadership skills are nurtured throughout education systems. Getting this balance of skills should matter to anyone who is a parent, a teacher, an employer, or just cares about what happens next to our world.

One of my favourite things about my role at Pearson is meeting students who are studying our BTEC qualifications. There is something about the blend of academic and practical skills that gives them something extra. Students like Mohammed. School never really ignited his passions until he took a BTEC in sports science at his local college. In his own words the qualification was about “doing something you’re incredibly passionate about… and being the best person you can be”. Every year thousands of students study BTECs. Through their own dedication, their brilliant teachers, and the involvement of businesses in shaping what they learn and providing work placement opportunities, they’ll succeed. Just like Mohammed, who is now a coach at Chelsea Football Club. Or the quarter of UK university undergraduates who go there brandishing their BTECs. Within a few years that’ll likely be one in three new undergraduates. And from higher education we know they progress into good jobs, because they leave armed with those skills employers need.

The findings of this latest survey are one side of the story here. Equally important is the exercise itself, of trying to align the hopes and needs of business and schools. The evidence seems to say that, for too long now, these two worlds - education and employability - are diverging, if not in aspiration then in the way they see those aspirations being achieved. It’s a relationship that we need to celebrate and encourage to grow; that we need to get running on parallel tracks. But tracks that also criss and cross; where the vocational and the academic blend, and where a multitude of destinations can be reached in a multitude of ways.

Nearly two-thirds of the businesses we surveyed said they would be willing to play a greater role in supporting careers provisions in schools and colleges. That’s a good place to kick on from, together.

 

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