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How to make young people ready for the workplace


It's a story that's popping up across many different industries, but Kasmin Cooney has a few ideas of how to get the next generation workforce ready for action. 

Feedback from business

In July 2014, the CBI published a survey taken from 291 companies, between them employing 1.5m people, stating that 61% of the business community was concerned about the resilience and self-management of school leavers. A third had concerns about young peoples’ attitude to work. This echoed results from an earlier interview survey (City & Guilds Oct 2013) of 1005 UK employers, from small to large organisations. The results here were also far from encouraging, with employers stating that young people were less equipped for the workplace compared with even five years ago.

Results indicate that 61% of employers believe young peoples’ expectations are far too high and very few understand exactly what employers are looking for in new recruits, resulting in many not making it past the first stage interview. Importantly, 49% of those interviewed by City & Guilds said that young people were leaving education without the right skills because the education system focused too much on academia, with 47% saying that the skillsets did not match the needs of a modern business.

The USA is reporting something similar, with business communities voicing their frustrations over the preparedness of new entrants into the workplace. Interestingly, UK and USA survey results indicate a very high level of satisfaction on the technical/IT skills amongst young people, with 97% satisfaction amongst British employers.

Solutions offered by the business community

The business community is offering a range of solutions to help better prepare young people:

  • Increase the opportunities for real work experience

  • Make work experience mandatory for 16-18 year olds

  • Get businesses more involved in setting the curriculum and qualification creation

  • Increase interaction between business and young people whilst they are in education

  • Increase the awareness of working life

Many businesses are also calling for an increase in the development of primary school children’s literacy and numeracy skills. A puzzling suggestion when survey results clearly show that education focuses too much on academia.

Are these suggestions enough?

The business community solutions make sense. However, if work experience were to be mandatory, how many more companies would be required to offer meaningful work experience to a teenager? It is a real challenge to create a useful work experience during a short placement. So often, placements are arranged hastily with a family member’s employer and the experience turns out to be disappointing or dire. The business offering the placement finds it very difficult to provide useful work because of prior training required, health and safety concerns or the need to have staff CRB checked before working with students one-to-one. The result is the teenager ends up making tea, tidying cupboards or shredding boxes of documents. Some sort of incentive will almost certainly be required for the employer because of the challenges and time required to create and provide a placement that delivers the desired experience and learning.

I was talking recently with a PhD student; he voiced disappointment that his course at a prominent business school provided little in the way of promised real life contact with businesses. He found paper-based scenarios and the occasional presentation by a multinational a poor substitute for real projects in real organisations. So if a business school is having problems placing PhD students, who can be expected to make a positive intellectual contribution during their placement, what chance does a 15-year old have of finding an employer who can devise and oversee a rewarding placement?

The current approach to work experience and the way teenagers are prepared, is clearly totally inadequate and instead of tinkering at the edges, this all needs a radical rethink.

Kasmin Cooney OBE is managing director of Righttrack Consultancy and a Fellow of the RSA. This is a subject close to her heart. In 1989, Kasmin was a volunteer on a business forum calling for change within the education establishment to look at this whole issue

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