Mind the skills gap: Careers education ‘failing young people’

The vocational route can be more rewarding

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Forget the butcher, the baker and the candlestickmaker – the saying should have been rewritten long ago to conclude with the iPadmaker, says Neil Carberry, director of employment and skills at the Confederation of British Industry.

And, if you are thinking about the jobs market that will confront today’s 18-year-olds when they complete their working life in 50 years’ time, it’s anybody’s guess.

“If you’re 18 today, that means you will still be in the jobs market in 50 years and who knows what that jobs market will look like,” he added. “Some of the jobs that will be available even in 10 years’ time haven’t been invented yet.

“It’s certainly a case that progress will be linked to high-level skills – giving young people the skills that they can develop.”

Mr Carberry is critical of careers education – particularly in England – where the subject has been made the responsibility of schools with very little forward planning and few, if any, extra resources.

One of the problems is that schools are measured on their performance in GCSEs and A-levels and that tends to make them favour the university route for as many of their pupils as possible.

He remembers an employer recalling how one of his most promising apprentices had his application form torn up by his school to try to stop him from pursuing it. According to a recent survey for the Edge Foundation, more than one in four pupils had been told they were “too clever” to pursue vocational qualifications.

Part of the problem has been the standard of qualifications. The engineering diploma introduced by Labour may have impressed many – including Cambridge University – but, when the Coalition Government let the diplomas wither on the vine, a lot of dross died along with it.

Mr Carberry would like to see a VCAS operation set up to rival UCAS – the universities and colleges admissions service which lists every degree course offered at UK universities. A vocation admissions service giving details of everything on offer and what qualifications would be needed for which jobs would be of great benefit to the 50 per cent of young people who do not want to go down the university route.

It is not as if opting for an apprenticeship is necessarily condemning the individuals who choose it to a second-class career when it comes to the rewards.

“Someone who takes a level three STEM apprenticeship (a sub-degree level apprenticeship in one of the subjects key to the future of the economy – science, technology, engineering or maths) can earn more than in many degree level jobs because they are vital skills,” he said. “We should make clear to schools and young people what high quality the job is.”

The Confederation of British Industry has been buoyed by the reaction to its seminal report on education 18 months ago – which called on schools to produce “rounded and grounded” young people with communications and problem-solving skills and avoid becoming “exam factories”.

A consensus on this seems to be emerging across the political spectrum, Mr Carberry observed.

What was needed for effective careers education was the back-up materials giving details of what was on offer. “You cannot expect a teacher to have expert knowledge of all career opportunities,” he added.

It mattered little whether the information was available from one of Education Secretary Michael Gove’s regional commissioners or the sub-regional bodies expected to be recommended by former Education Secretary David Blunkett in a review of school structures ordered by the Labour party.

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