The MT Essays 40th Anniversary: Youth and the Workplace - Close that culture gap

Bosses lament the standard of today's raw recruits, while university leavers dislike what business has to offer. How should firms tackle the mutual misunderstanding?

by Alastair MacLeod, Orange Business Services
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

What is it with young people? Employers despair at the apparent dearth of quality graduates. Never have there been so many well-qualified young people entering Britain's labour market. And yet never have business leaders expressed so much concern over the skills shortage. But at the same time, those leaving university are beginning to ask: 'What's wrong with businesses?'

It is clear that, beyond the perennial gap in skills, there's a more dangerous development: a cultural gulf between fresh graduates and British business. Just as businesses are rapidly changing their requirements, young people are radically breaking with traditional expectations of the world of work. If we are to prevent this disconnect from damaging UK plc, a new relationship is required between the two groups.

British business has long since moved from manufacturing to the service economy, where knowledge is the core raw material. But in recent years, the forces of globalisation and deregulation have intensified the need for what are often (and incorrectly) termed soft skills. According to research by Orange Business Services and think tank Demos, employers identify com- munication and problem-solving as the critical skills today. A decade from now, creativity and innovation will top the list. It is becoming evident, therefore, that these are not so much soft skills as hardcore necessities.

The breadth of the divide between employers and graduates is starkly illustrated by the lack of understanding from graduates here: where nine out of 10 say they feel well prepared for the workplace, just over 50% of employers say it's getting harder to find graduates with the right skills.

But it cuts both ways. Young people are disappointed by the new opportunities open to them on graduation. No longer do they aspire to fast-track management positions; they are footloose and fearful of commitment: a quarter don't expect to be in the same company in five years' time. Theirs is a peer-to-peer generation that feels out of place in a hierarchy and values work/life balance more than its predecessors. And they have a point. Research by Orange has shown that employees are forcing change: they demand autonomy, more free time and the flexibility to work where they choose. Businesses must adapt to pressure from below.

The good news is that telecommunications - particularly the convergence of mobile and fixed telephony and the internet - are not only accelerating this trend but helping employers to respond. Next-generation communications can marry the need for organisational efficiency with the flexibility that both employers and staff need. More than 40% of graduates report that technology has made it easier to maintain a work/life balance, while only 19% claim it has made this harder.

Technology cannot go all the way, though. Employers need to find creative ways to reconnect with young people - for instance, by treating work/life balance as a highly prized skill, developing it among recruits by means of specialist training. They should support graduates in ways that reflect their need for peer support and provide alternatives to traditional HR programmes and hierarchical structures. Consider, for example, their concerns over student debt or shortage of housing.

In return, undergraduates should try to understand the changing needs of employers. A downside of recent university expansion has been the relative decline of the extra-curricular world that used to characterise British higher education. Today, students have to make up for this through their own efforts. Some say the current focus on qualifications and university places has diverted attention from the growing necessity for new skills.

Whether that is true or not, Britain has a strong record of flexibility and adaptability that will underpin the reconnection between young people and business.

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