Our education system fails to reflect the importance employers place on both core curriculum subjects and basic workplace skills, such as discipline, attitude and communication. At a time of great economic uncertainty, now, more than ever, we need urgent action to realise the full potential of the workforce and keep Britain competitive on the world stage.
Youth unemployment stubbornly refuses to budge from the 1m mark, while businesses say too many young people emerge from school with poor literacy, numeracy and general work skills – often despite good grades. I know of businesses that resort to texting their young employees to get them into work on time. And I have heard from others that are exasperated at having to retrain supposedly well educated people to write emails in intelligible English, rather than “text speak”.
Put simply, a secondary education system so geared towards the attainment of GCSEs and A-levels is failing to prepare people for the globalised jobs market. And this lack of work readiness is aggravated by the many vocational subjects taken by students, which lull them into a false sense of their own employability.
The secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, has successfully diagnosed the problem of sub-standard English and Maths: high levels of numeracy and literacy are of fundamental importance to virtually all employers. Similarly, the commitment to getting more young people into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects is to be welcomed. If we want to drive innovation and entrepreneurship, it is essential that our young people are world-beaters in these subjects.
To be clear, the focus on increasing academic standards and making subjects more rigorous is a positive move. However, this is not a complete solution: a new approach is needed to ensure young people also leave school with real experience of soft job skills – like time-keeping and teamwork – which employers say are just as important as grades.
To create a better balance between academic standards and work skills, we are calling for a coordinated, long-term work skills strategy, starting with a programme that embeds employability skills training into the national curriculum. I believe these three policies will help young Britons realise their potential:
1. All school children should have a minimum level of exposure to a coordinated, meaningful national work experience programme.
2. Compulsory employment skills advice – delivered directly by employers – should be given to all school children, as part of an employability skills training programme. This should be embedded into the national curriculum.
3. Trainee teachers should undertake secondments into business, so they can see first-hand the skills employers need.
None of these changes will be easy to implement on a national scale, and all require close collaboration between employers, educators and government. But, despite this, I believe they are realistic goals and I take heart from recent education reforms, which have helped prove that business can play a successful role in education as sponsors of academies. I am convinced the private sector can and wants to do more, which is why we are calling on businesses to join our Unlocking Britain’s Potential campaign.
Forging closer links between employers and schools can give teachers a better understanding of what business is like. Similarly, giving employers a greater influence on what is taught will ensure the workforce of tomorrow understands what skills will make them successful in the workplace.
Businesses don’t expect schools to teach customer service, but they do need people who can work in teams, have discipline and drive, as well as excellent communication skills. Failure to do so puts the UK’s future as a global business leader at risk.
Peter Searle is chief executive of Adecco Group UK & Ireland. Find out more about Unlocking Britain’s Potential www.unlockingbritainspotential.co.uk