What should HE teach graduates about workplace culture?

The perspectives between graduates and the workplace are conflicting, but what is the reality, asks Chris Sheppardson

Universities are and always have been, a great environment for younger generations to build resilience, confidence, independence, social skills and the early foundation stones for a future adult working life. But times have changed, life as we now know it has evolved, the way we interact, communicate, learn and develop is entirely different to what it was 10 years ago; that’s not to suggest it’s a bad thing. Alongside that journey of change and the speedy transition towards a digital age, there is a school of thought that questions whether or not universities (as establishments) need to adapt their entire approach in terms of the development of young talent today.

Every year, universities churn out an array of highly intelligent, motivated and ambitious prospects for the working world. The issue is, when they leave the safety net of the campus, many argue they are not prepared for the reality of the workplace as it stands today and as a result, they have declined in their ability to enter real life/work environments with any conviction and with limited chances of success.

Perspectives between the workplace and graduates are conflicting

Expectations of emerging graduates are seen to be too high, the assumption is that graduates are too ambitious (if that is possible) and that they have lost that ‘tribal’ human need to be part of a team or culture – which most would argue is imperative to success in business today. But how much of this is true, or even fair? After all, one of the attractions towards the younger generation is that they do possess a very strong value set and they have a much wider global and environmental perspective than past generations of graduates. There is also a genuine buzz and excitement rising that the new graduate generations hold a positive attitude and one that sees opportunity and a brighter future.

The perspectives between graduates and the workplace are conflicting, but what is the reality? The answer lies probably somewhere in between the two, there is ambition and intelligence but there is also a lack of understanding about the importance of the more basic elements such as culture and team spirit in the workplace. This means that there is a vital need for universities to play a more central role in the development of younger talent and in preparing them for what is to come. Back in the Victorian ages, team sports were introduced into many private schools to teach the young about leadership as it was understood that there was a need to teach ambitious young people the need to think beyond themselves – that is still absolutely true of today and few would suggest otherwise.

Could universities promote sports more centrally as being important for the learning of social togetherness, of being united, to boost the understanding and importance of culture and trust?

Increased pressure has led to a silo mentality

The argument today is that we are creating a silo mentality as we place increasing pressure on individuals to have to aspire to even greater heights. We do need to recognise that it is quite a big burden to leave university with a £40-50,000 debt on your shoulders, which is, despite many citing US case studies, relatively new. Whether this is fair is debatable and warrants another article altogether. However, the real frustration that is emerging is aimed at a number of universities across the country, as there are question marks over the following debates:

·     Should all of them really be charging the £9k level of fees for tuition as that was supposed to be only for premium universities?
·     Have universities really upped their game to meet the changing demands of the young and the workplace today?
·     Is the focus of universities really on the talent under their wing or on other matters – research, funding, International students etc.?

Having worked across many sectors over the past year there is an interesting change that has come to the fore. If one goes back to the 1990s, sport was still amateur and was treated really as a hobby, a breeding ground for friendship, culture and good character. Business had changed after a bruising recession and the yuppies of Thatcherism were being replaced by a new generation that led into Blair’s greatest days – a more modern Britain began to emerge. The education system was still robust and strong and universities were highly respected, as were politicians. Many will argue that the early Blair years were the high point of belief in politics over the last 30 years.

Can we learn from sport?

Fast-forward to today and it is all change. The Political system does seem bankrupt; the educational system is open to serious questions; the work environment is clearly under severe pressure as talent is continually walking away and there are real concerns over stress, mental wellbeing and trust in leaders. Interestingly, sport as a sector still leads not only in character development but also in sophistication.

The young modern sports player today learns to be accountable and responsible from an early stage, everything they do is measured from their diets to their behaviours to their intense training. Moreover, sport is all about trust and culture and the modern sports person can often stand above the young professional today in character, an attitude and work ethic. All these factors are drilled into them. The argument is that many of the graduates entering the work environment are over protected and just not ready for the professional environment because they are not mentally ready and robust enough in character.

So there is much to be learnt from sport and in truth, as questions increase over the role of universities, one can also turn to the US system and say that maybe sport should play a more central role in the educating of the young – not just as the Victorians taught us, but also how the US system works whereby high school and college sport is also a focal point of social togetherness and for families. The high school football match is on a Friday night when the family comes together. How many families in the UK go to watch their children play soccer, rugby, and cricket as a family unit and not as just individuals?

The importance of culture and trust

Could universities promote sports more centrally as being important for the learning of social togetherness, of being united, to boost the understanding and importance of culture and trust?

The work place has not changed very much (some would argue), but it can be a brutal environment. It has to be the role of universities to prepare the young for work. Is this being achieved? Most will say not. Universities do take some blame but so do society, parents and the system. We need to change the momentum and maybe sport can help do this.

When most of us look back on our careers, the first thing we will think of is not our personal achievements but of the people and friends that we have been fortunate to have met along the way and to have had in our lives. We do all value friendship, trust and culture but this is not a given right – we have to work at it and for it.

The system has changed and we need to work harder to combat the dangers that the system is creating. We can all see the problems so we need to start working on positive change and sooner rather than later.

Chris Sheppardson is CEO at EP Business in Hospitality.

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