From turning up to the office in flip-flops, to struggling to make eye contact with co-workers or quitting after their first day, today's students often lack the personal skills, awareness and basic self-discipline that is essential in the workplace, the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) has said.
Speaking to the Independent on Sunday the day after British students received their A-level results and against a backdrop of record numbers of university admissions, John Longworth called on schools and colleges to shift their focus from good grades to the broader issue of “employability”. British businesses currently have 735,000 job vacancies, he said, and the biggest barrier to filling them was “matching skills with vacancies”.
“Employers will often say that students at all levels – school, college and university level – haven’t really got the essential elements that business is looking for,” said Mr Longworth. He said BCC members had a great deal of “anecdotal evidence” that students were often ill-prepared for work, and cited resilience, communication skills – “so they can communicate in the workplace and with customers” – and motivation as some of the skills often lacking in new employees.
“It’s about developing coaching skills in schools, and working with employers so people can experience and understand what the world of work requires of them from a very early age,” Mr Longworth said.
Some institutions did a better job than others at preparing students for working life, and most employers recognise that new workers “don’t come in as the finished product”, he said Mr Longworth. But in general, the education establishment was “driven to focus on grades and academic ability” rather than producing rounded people with the skills required to thrive in employment at work.
The BCC wants to change the focus on grades by encouraging the government to assess schools and colleges in terms of employment outcomes. It could do so by using data from the HMRC to establish how many students from any educational institution have entered the workforce are in work. Some personal skills – an outgoing personality, for example – are prizes won in the genetic lottery. But while “you can’t change who you are, you can change behaviour”, said Mr Longworth. Teaching workplace skills in schools and colleges wouldn’t necessarily resemble conventional management training. Disciplines such as sport and drama were important in terms of for building could build confidence and the ability to work as part of a team.
Mr Longworth is reluctant to say today’s students have fewer basic workplace skills as a result of their deep involvement in digital media and the online world, pointing out that social media skills, for example, are extremely very attractive in areas such as marketing. At the age of 57, he also acknowledges that “careers advice was appalling in my day”. However, most employers seem to believe that there has been a deterioration in preparedness for work in recent decades.
Young people need to realise that university is only one path to a good job, said Mr Longworth, who describes says the “Blair-ite obsession” with universities as the only solution option for young people with aspirations is “bonkers”. “There are different talent pools and a variety of routes by which young people can succeed in life, such as apprenticeships and simply training at work.”
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