The importance of Skills Education

Soft skills are at the top of employers’ wish lists, says Michael Mercieca

The ‘skills gap’ is now a cliché. It refers to a lack of technical or ‘soft’ interpersonal and attitudinal skills, usually among young people entering the job market. But while Britain’s lack of technical or digital skills often takes centre stage, a study by the British Chambers of Commerce found that it is soft skills which are at the top of employers’ wish lists. 

But soft skills are hard to come by. On the one hand, business leaders frequently lament the struggle to hire young people that have them. On the other, students with an impressive stack of academic results are disappointed and disillusioned when they don’t get the job. Many hundreds of thousands are still looking.

Although, youth unemployment (16-24) has fallen significantly from its 22.5% high in 2011, to 15.6% in July 2015[1], at 723,000 young people, it is still roughly triple the headline (16-64) rate. It is also falling at a much slower pace. In the last year to July 2015, it only fell by 3% (23,000), whereas the headline rate fell by 10% (200,000). When quizzed, businesses consistently point to young people not being work-ready as the reason behind this stubbornly large pool of wasted talent and potential.

So what are these soft skills and attitudes that lead to job applicants being work-ready? Employers and employers’ associations often cite confidence, communication, creativity, teamwork, resilience and problem-solving as the key ones.

Let’s be clear, this isn’t a blame game. Today’s rigorously academic education system forces young people and teachers to focus on learning facts, passing exams and moving on to the next exam. Grades, league tables and OFSTED inspections are the focus. 

Has Britain’s education system ever fully prepared young people for the world of work? Debatable – but what is clear is that the world and the world of work has changed hugely over the last 20 to 30 years, with more complex, demanding requirements around communication, networking and deadlines. What’s more, competition for jobs is global and intense, while in the UK, young people’s expectations for their first role remain high and based on academic results.

Bridging the gap between what businesses expect from new recruits and the skills they have can only have a positive effect. Youth unemployment will fall faster and converge on the headline rate (5.5%), as it is in Germany. Building future generations of work-ready young people will boost productivity, drive growth in the economy and alleviate the terrible stresses and strains caused by high unemployment.

However, there is a cost to training new employees in these skills and there is no quick fix – attitudes and aptitudes are acquired in months not days. They also cannot be learned from a text book. 

The best way to develop them is through learning experiences derived from ‘doing’ experiences, Ultimately, these will complement academic learning – they are not mutually exclusive. Character – the confidence and ability to try again after a disappointment, to keep going and be resilient – is again something that is developed over time.

‘There is little room for failure in the academic education system but in life, everyone will experience it in varying degrees’

There is little room for failure in the academic education system but in life, everyone will experience it in varying degrees. Extra-curricular activities come in to plug this gap. Young Enterprise programmes are centred around enterprise and financial education. they give students the opportunity to experience the world of work and people from that world, in a supportive environment. A place where failure isn’t a disaster, but a learning experience. A chance to test yourself and your capabilities and bouncing back, stronger and wiser when things don’t go according to plan. It is an incremental and iterative process, but one that has a lasting impact on individuals. 

That’s why we created the Young Enterprise’s Journey Award; to celebrate individual character and progress. As part of our flagship Company programme’s UK Final, the winner is someone who has demonstrated remarkable character and resilience when addressing the business tasks set by Young Enterprise 

For example, this year’s winner, Nahyan, overcame chronic shyness, fear of failure and a strong lack of self-confidence to set up his male fashion brand. Last year’s winner, Luke, was temporarily homeless following family problems when he found out about Young Enterprise through his youth worker. He went on to win Surrey Young Entrepreneur of the Year against strong competition. Every year, 20,000 students take part in Company. 

As well as building character and confidence, these extra-curricular experiences give young people an idea of the real world to come. It puts their academic learning into context. Maths becomes more relevant through financial education. Participating in Young Enterprise Company experience gives them first-hand experience of teamwork and problem solving as well as creativity and cash flow. After 14 years in the education system, should this not be the norm for all students?

Social mobility will not just happen. Those that need it the most are the least equipped to make the journey. Investing in skills development in schools, colleges and universities will make academic learning a more rounded and relevant experience. But it will encourage and equip those who are not excelling academically, to strive and be successful in their chosen careers.

[1] ONS Labour Market statistics for May to July 2015

Michael Mercieca is CEO of Young Enterprise.

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