It is a familiar refrain from some employers: “Young people don’t leave school or college with the skills we need to employ them”. People nod wisely in agreement, and certainly there is truth in this.
But what is rarely asked as a follow-up is “How have you got involved in schools and colleges to help young people develop these skills?”. If this question was asked, too often we would hear the sound of silence.
Before coming into politics, I spent 16 years running organisations that help young people to get a better education and a better job. It is fair to say that during that time I shared some of the frustrations that employers had with schools and colleges, particularly the experience many have had of contacting schools to offer support only to find they were not particularly welcomed – or in some cases outright ignored.
Much of this in my view has to do with the fact that schools and colleges are not judged stringently enough on the destinations of the young people they’ve taught after they’ve left their institution – how many go on to further study, into a good apprenticeship or good job? If they were, I feel sure they would prioritise such links more than some do at present.
However, I found it equally frustrating when I heard employers complain about young people if they weren’t doing anything to improve the situation themselves.
This has been particularly prevalent among employers in the sciences. There, you find pretty constant whingeing about the lack of young people suitable to enter their organisations and very little action, besides one-off talks in schools – which may feel good, but are pretty unlikely to produce great outcomes without any follow-up activities. Try and get work experience for a young person who isn’t related to one of these companies’ employees and you’ll see what I mean.
If engagement is to work, employers need to be in it for the long-term. It is more effective to work with a smaller number of young people over a sustained period than a large number on a one-off event.
Take a programme I was involved in at the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF) with JP Morgan, in which the firm began working with 16-year-olds and kept with the same group until they were 21-22.
They now have 17 full-time employees at the bank from backgrounds they rarely recruited from before. Importantly, this programme drew from all over the UK – from the Isle of Wight to the Western Isles – because it really is true that while talent is everywhere, opportunity is not.
Too often employers will work only with young people on their doorstep and only on corporate social responsibility activities, rather than recruitment-related ones. This means if you are in Tower Hamlets you get deluged with offers from companies because you are right by Canary Wharf, but if you are on the other side of London you see very little of this activity, never mind if you are in Redcar.
The picture is changing. Employers are widening their work experience programmes by offering to match every placement given to a personal connection with one given to someone who doesn’t have such connections, as KPMG and others have done. They are sponsoring university technical colleges, like the Oxfordshire UTC in my constituency.
Importantly, they are also taking significant steps to change their recruitment practices to focus more on potential to do the job rather than just past academic performance and polish. But make sure you ask what they’re doing before nodding along with their complaints.
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