SMEs shun school system

A survey of micro-businesses suggests school-leavers and graduates don't have the right skills for business. So those A* grades at A-Level might have been a waste of time...

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 18 Aug 2011

In the latest unemployment figures from the Office for National Statistics, one factor in particular stood out: the number of 16-24-year-olds who don’t have jobs, which rose to almost one in five during the second quarter of the year. Could the UK’s education system be at fault? A survey by the British Chambers of Commerce certainly suggests as much: apparently, while 55% of micro-firms (those with fewer than 10 employees) want to increase their head-count over the next four years find it hard to find the right people for the jobs. Doesn't give much hope to those opening their A-Level results today, does it?

Schools are given short shrift by the survey’s 2,000 respondents: 47% said they’d be ‘fairly or very’ nervous about whether a school-leaver with A-Levels (or the equivalent) would have the right skills for their business (although 22% said they’d be ‘confident’, so it’s not all bad). And there’s more evidence that stumping up £9,000 for a degree might not be worth it: apparently, only a third said they’d be ‘fairly or very’ confident about the skills set of a recent graduate.

Admittedly, there are a couple of mitigating factors here: micro-businesses are, on the whole, less likely to employ people fresh out of school or college, largely because businesses with a skeleton staff need people with a bit of experience. After all, there are some skills you can’t develop unless you’ve spent a certain period of time working (not least the delicate art of office politicking) – which makes larger companies better adapted to employ reams of wet-behind-the-ears graduates.

But not even big businesses are particularly impressed by the skills exhibited by graduates and school-leavers: yesterday, for example, James Dyson expressed concerns that unless there are more engineering graduates, his business might have to move its headquarters abroad. And on Monday, BP’s Trevor Garlick said the company was struggling to fill posts it had created because of a shortage of people with the right skills.

None of this brings much hope to today's 18-year-olds, who find out their A-Level results today. According to Government figures, the pass rate rose from 97.6% last year, to 97.8% this year - the 29th year in a row it's gone up. The good news for employers looking to take on A-Level graduates is that the number with qualifications in more practical subjects - maths and science, for example - has risen (which should keep the Dysons of this world happy).

The bad news for those wishing to enter university, though, is that with rises in tuition fees set to come in next year, competition for places will be hotter than ever. Perhaps it’s best to go straight into the jobs market, if they can – at least they’ll get some of that valuable experience that way…

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