Complacency is in danger of afflicting Britain's competitive drive in the wake of the Asian economic downturn, a crisis that has shattered the myth of Asia's invincibility. Two years ago, we were accustomed to hearing politicians and economic commentators regularly chanting the mantra that Britain must be 'leaner and meaner' in order to compete against the export kings of the East. Now, the talk is more of fairness in the workplace and 'long termism'. Yet it is competitiveness and fierce business drive that are needed to ensure the durability of our economic growth, particularly at a time of uncertainty in the currency markets. And part of this competitiveness will stem from our businesses maintaining a strong workforce which can boast the appropriate skills levels and a lively and interested attitude to its work.
In 1996, when the focus on the Asian threat was at its height, Industry in Education, a charity supported by many blue-chip firms, published a major study of the skills levels and attitudes of the new generation of youngsters entering the workplace. Called Towards Employability, it identified worrying failings in literacy and a woeful lack of communication skills among school leavers, whose attitude to work often left a lot to be desired.
Much has changed for the better since then. We have a prime minister committed to improving the nation's skills base and teachers have a growing understanding of employers' needs. Education secretary David Blunkett has put renewed emphasis on the three Rs and is expanding his literacy summer schools. The New Deal will ensure that more than 150,000 long-term unemployed 18-25 year olds get a feel for the work ethic, even if full-time employment eludes them at the end of the project.
But while policy is changing, the malaise persists. The commercial 'can-do' attitude of school leavers in, say, the United States or Hong Kong, is absent over here and there still seems to be no cure for what became known in the 1970s as the 'British disease' - the view that becoming an entrepreneur was a second-class career. Today, the 'coolness' of a career in the fashion and music industries is likely to be more appealing to a teenager than a job in the manufacturing sector.
The 1996 report concluded that the lack of 'employability skills' among school and college leavers may be costing British industry as much as £8 billion or more each year. That burden must be shed if Britain is to keep its competitive edge. We need to ask the business community to consider what more it can do to help teachers tackle this malaise. If we want youngsters with the skills to meet the competitive challenges of the next century, business people should be prepared to roll up their sleeves and provide practical help.
For a start, more business people should be encouraged to become school governors. The business mind brings a fresh outlook to a school's top management and it helps teachers to appreciate that 'chalk and talk' learning is not enough. We can influence the shape of 'industrial understanding' courses, which can focus too much on marketing and profit and loss and not enough on the key skills of working with others and solving problems. Classroom simulations that trivialise the business process can be counter-productive.
Business people involved in the management of education are good at spotting that a child may be academically gifted but, without early help, may never possess the communication skills to inspire 100 restless shop-floor workers to meet a new challenge. Fresh policy from the Education Department would help, such as insisting that all schools have at least one senior business person on the board. Industry in Education has been encouraging business people to serve on school governing bodies in their own right - not just as parent governors - with excellent results. In addition, the chief executive of a FTSE-100 company, faced with a choice of speaking engagements, should try to accept the odd invitation to visit a school or college and offer the company's services to the careers teacher.
Secondly, businessmen or women should be encouraged to change careers in mid-life and become teachers. Career switchers shouldn't be deterred by the prospect of going back to college to study. Again, the Government might consider helping. A fast-track training course of, say, three months, instead of the current insistence on a 12-month course, would aid the transfer of much-needed business expertise into schools.
Thirdly, when teachers apply for a company placement to gain a taste of the business world, we should make the most of it. The Teacher Placement Scheme needs a fresh breath of life and, after the recent injection of Government funds to boost this activity, companies should give teachers a more complete view of their world. A week shadowing the human resources director or doing a 'special project' in a large corporate headquarters is not enough. Why shouldn't teachers sit in on senior management meetings or spend a week, shoulder-to-shoulder, with young workers on the shop floor?
In the next 12 months, Asia will be back in the picture once more and businesses in the UK will once again be grappling with this strand of competition. The workforces of the Far East have already proven that they can quickly adapt to changed circumstances and have a strong work ethic. We cannot allow ourselves to sit back complacently.
Too many business people still view their school liaison activities as optional extras, thinking to themselves: 'We'll do this if we have the time and resources'. It is a similar argument to the one that results in charitable donations being cut back during an economic downturn. Yet, there can be few better forms of long-term investment than helping to produce an alert, business-literate workforce for the future. This is not an add-on activity, merely to be tolerated. It should be seen as being part of our core business. Only then will this country be armed and ready to face renewed competitive challenges.
Michael A Ashcroft
Chairman of BHI Corporation, chairman of trustees, Industry in Education and Companion of the IM.