The prevailing wisdom is that going to university makes people more employable – that those three or four years' extra education justfies a salary premium that may well persist throughout a career. But are things changing? The Association of Accounting Technicians trade body has been speaking to 500 employers in their sector, and nearly two-thirds suggested that graduates don’t offer good value for money – so 35% now plan to recruit more school leavers instead. Another indication that universities aren't doing enough to prepare people for the world of work?
So why are school leavers becoming more popular, exactly? Well, according to the AAT's survey, 76% of employers said they were more flexible than graduates about their early career path – perhaps because they have fewer expectations about their progress. Others argue that many new graduates don’t have the right attitude – that they’re nothing like as good as they think as they are. By contrast, they suggest that school leavers are more malleable, so it’s easier for them to adapt to the company’s culture, and more enthusiastic, so they’re nicer to work with.
The study cites the example of Procter & Gamble’s finance department in Newcastle, which apparently used to recruit graduates almost exclusively but now prefers an apprenticeship scheme for school leavers. Sonja Howell, who runs the programme, says graduates have neither the right capabilities nor a good enough work ethic – perhaps, she suggests, because they’ve got too used to spending most of the day in the bed (in between a couple of lectures, a bit of PlayStation, and a trip to the Student Union bar). However, school leavers are apparently much more gung-ho.
It’s clearly a complicated issue. For all we know, it may be that the 'invoice processing' work at P&G was actually better-suited to someone below graduate level – which would explain why those who took the job didn’t get on very well with it. Structured schemes for school leavers are also relatively unusual, so it's hard to generalise on the basis of this particular example (40% of firms don’t even offer any kind of work experience scheme, according to the Government). And besides, AAT is hardly an impartial witness: it offers a qualification that helps non-graduates get into accountancy, so it has a vested interest in talking up school leavers.
But even if we’re sceptical about the conclusions of this particular survey, we do get the sense that more and more employers are starting to question whether there really is any added value in a degree. Maybe this tells us that too many people are going to university who shouldn’t be - or maybe it tells us that universities need to start doing more to develop professional skills as well as academic ones, for the good of UK plc...
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Are you better off hiring school leavers?