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Gary Weinstein

Akonia Ltd

Managing Director

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Graduate skills gap: nurturing business skills in young employees


For years now the headlines have shouted out that young people are not ready for the world of work. A British Chambers of Commerce survey said "young people need more support to make transition from education to work".

The statistics are scary:

  • 88% of businesses think school leavers are unprepared for the workplace.
  • 54% think graduates are not work ready.
  • 76% of the nearly 3,000 UK companies surveyed report a lack of work experience as one of the key reasons young people are unprepared for work. Unfortunately, the government abolished compulsory work experience back in 2012.
  • 57% said that young people are lacking basic 'soft' skills such as communication and team working.

John Longworth, then Director-General of the BCC said: “It isn't about pointing the finger at young people - it is a joint responsibility between businesses, educators and government”.

I couldn't agree more, and this article explains why.

Why do employers have such high expectations of our education institutions to make young people proficient in employability skills?

If employers are so dissatisfied, then why is it that year after year the same headlines appear? Why isn’t more being done to address it by our education institutions? 

I believe there is a limit to what our education institutions can achieve, and why employers need to take immediate action by developing essential business skills in their young employees. 

Read most university strategy plans and employability skills are a central tenet and priority. They invest a considerable amount of resources providing careers guidance. They encourage students to attend CV preparation and employability skills development sessions.

Colleges and universities are committed to ensuring that as many students as possible are placed on work-experience; thanks to the support of local and national employers.

Why isn’t this working?

It's not working because, as good as it may be, this is no substitute for the real thing!

Employability skills are learned before joining the real world of work, whereas business skills are developed in the workplace.

Let’s consider the following scenario for learning a foreign language.

A student elects to learn a foreign language, for example, French. They attend dedicated classes with a French-speaking teacher. They learn words and phrases and practice speaking, reading and writing in class. They consolidate their learning through homework. If lucky, they’ll go on a field trip to France and be immersed in the language – and critically – the culture.

It is employer’s responsibility to ‘take up the baton’ and develop essential business skills in their young employees during their first year in their employ.

Afterwards, can they speak French fluently? Possibly, if one of their parents is a native speaker and makes a point of speaking to them in French regularly, otherwise probably not.

If the student really wants to speak, read and write French then they should go and live in France for a period of time, where every day they will use the language and experience the culture.

My own son did this. He went to live in a foreign country. He had learned the language at school and yet still couldn’t speak it fluently.

After he completed an extensive six-month language course, he commenced work.

I spoke to him two weeks into his first job. He said, “Dad, I’ve learned more [local language] in the last couple of weeks than I did on the language course.” I said “Son, no you haven’t. However, you have applied what you’ve learned and rapidly consolidated it.”

There is no substitute for application in a real world context

So, why do employers have such high expectations of our education institutions to make young people proficient in employability skills?

There is a limit to what they can do to prepare young people and graduates with employability skills for the world of work.

Employability skills are mostly learned implicitly on the sports field (teamwork) or as the head of a society (leadership and management) rather than explicitly. 

Employability skills are learned implicitly each time a student has to plan an essay (preparation) and meet a deadline (time-keeping) or participate in a group discussion (communication skills).

Few students are told this explicitly, however. After all, educators are experts in their academic field and focused on imparting their knowledge in the classroom.

It is employer’s responsibility to ‘take up the baton’ and develop essential business skills in their young employees during their first year in their employ.

Essential business skills are:

  • Personal management
  • Interpersonal behaviour (emotional intelligence) 
  • Communication skills 
  • Team working 
  • Problem solving 
  • Management 
  • Leadership 
  • Industry intelligence 
  • Customer relationships 
  • Financial acumen

The most effective place for young employees to learn them is while in employment and consolidate them in the workplace.

There is a well-known learning model called 70:20:10. 70% is learned and developed through experience; 20% from colleagues and mentors; 10% on formal courses.

Providing your young employees with a formal ‘graduate-style’ development programme is an excellent way of helping them to learn and understand core business skills and terminology.

In the workplace, they will apply what they’ve learned on a daily basis, so that within a relatively short period of time, they will become proficient, productive and professional.

Their colleagues and mentors will help them to understand the real world context when applying their new found skills.

It’s a win-win-win

A win for the young employee, a win for their colleagues, and a win for your organisation.

You don’t have to be a large employer with an HR/L&D department, expertise, space or deep pockets to provide one, as you can outsource the formal component of essential business skills development for your young employees.  

So it’s time for you, as employers, to stop making the headlines, and start doing more to develop the business skills of your young employees so that they can lay down a solid foundation on which to build a successful career, and achieve their potential.

Enough talking. It’s time for action.

It’s the right thing to do.

Interested in this topic? Read How to develop a learning culture for young talent.

Author Profile Picture
Gary Weinstein

Managing Director

Read more from Gary Weinstein

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