MT EXPERT: Why employers should go back to school

If employers want young people with the right education, they should be designing the curriculum themselves, argues Chris Jones.

by Chris Jones
Last Updated: 19 Feb 2014

Who would want to be young in 2014? The economy’s fragile, house prices are high and youth unemployment rates are through the roof. But before we write off the young in pity, we have to remember that it’s not just a young person’s problem. It’s  everyone’s problem, because it is a problem for the economy.

Findings from McKinsey show 27% of Europe’s employers left a job unfilled last year. It seems really simple, doesn’t it? Young people need jobs. Employers need people to fill their jobs. It doesn’t take a genius to put the two together.

Unfortunately, the underlying problem is more complex. Vacant jobs stayed vacant because employers could not find candidates with the right skills. It echoes what research from the City & Guilds Group found; 60% of employers said young applicants don’t have the skills to be an effective employee.

The truth is that the vast majority of education does not prepare students to be employees. A student’s knowledge of Victorian literature may have dazzled their lecturer, but most employers couldn’t care less.

Calm down, English teachers. I’m not saying literature is unimportant. Learning how to read, contextualise and understand literature in the context of history and society undoubtedly contributes to producing a well-rounded employee. I’m simply saying that while many young people may have learned important skills in school, too many are hopelessly unable to translate that knowledge into action. Their whole lives, they’ve been taught that the most important question is, ‘What do you know?’ Suddenly they get into an interview, and they are blindsided by the question, ‘What can you do?’

A job interviewer is going to be much more interested to know if the recent grad can carry on a conversation outside of Twitter and texting. Are they a team player? Can they effectively analyse, contextualise and solve problems? We must have the right balance. Young people are the workforce of the future. So youth unemployment isn’t just a threat to society; it’s a threat to business and a threat to the economy. Clearly, the links between education and business are just not strong enough.

It’s no wonder that the Prince’s Trust recently found that many unemployed young people have lost hope and missed their chance for future success. We must reverse this trend and not let them slip through the cracks.

So who’s responsible to fix the problem? It’s so easy to point to the usual suspects: teachers, parents, the government. The truth is, the major responsibility falls on the shoulders of employers. After all, they are the ones who will decide whether to hire these young people. They are the only ones who know the skills they require.

So how can this work in practice? It’s simple. Business leaders should get involved in designing the curriculum from primary school up. Obviously five-year-olds don’t need to get to grips with agendas and client management, but they do deserve a system that teaches more than how to pass exams and win a university place.  

Likewise it’s not fair for employers to moan about young people lacking the right skills if they haven’t reached out to educators and explained what they need. City & Guilds Group research shows that more than 40% of businesses in the UK do not currently work with local schools or colleges to attract new talent. Yet the likes of work experience and actually speaking to young people directly can be incredibly beneficial. So why don’t more of them step up?

The bottom line is, greater links between education and employers means businesses get excellent employees and young people get employment.

Without them, we are condemning a generation to unemployment or underemployment. Contrary to popular stereotype, young people are interested in more than selfies and Snapchat. They want to work, and they want to help keep Britain’s businesses on top. They just need to know how, and it’s our responsibility to teach them.

- Chris Jones is the chief executive of City & Guilds

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