Gary Weinstein offers insight on readdressing the lack of business and soft skill in young people
In my article, “Work-ready graduates” in the June issue of TJ, I argued that Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) need to do more to prepare graduates for the world of work. Too many graduates are leaving Further Education College (FEC) and university without the necessary business and soft (also known as employability) skills and employers need to do more to give their first-time young employees the best possible start to their careers.
Further Education Colleges
In the last six months, I have invested a lot of time with FECs to embed more employability skills into their curriculums. There are some good initiatives out there. A good example is Working Knowledge’s Employer Aware1 Dragons’ Den-style business challenge event. This one-day workshop empowers groups of college students to create a business idea and develop it into a business pitch that they present to a bunch of business volunteers by the end of the day. During the process, the business volunteers (I have been one) mentor the students through the development of their mini business plan covering finance, operations, product development, marketing and sales considerations.
It is an excellent event but it does have its limitations. In one day, the students have to develop their idea into a business pitch; form teams with fellow students whom they haven’t worked with before; create a basic business plan; learn to work as a team, problem solve, manage their time, delegate, communicate effectively and make a presentation. It’s a huge ask and they make a good attempt at it. Students would gain even more value from the day if they had already been taught and practised team-working, problem-solving, time management, communication and presentation skills – throughout the academic year so that they could apply these skills during the Employer Aware workshop.
Incorporating just 20 hours of business and soft skills training into the FE curriculum would boost students’ skills, capability and confidence substantially, and make them more attractive to employers.
However, there is a problem. The Government keeps moving the ‘goalposts’ for funding. In the 2013/14 academic year, FECs received funding for the development of employability skills, which meant that programmes such as that mentioned above would be funded, but for the 2014/15 academic year these funds were reprioritised to funding work experience placements. This means FECs are financially rewarded for the number of work experience placements achieved, not the direct development of employability skills. That’s tantamount to dropping student’s in the deep end and expecting them to swim without any swimming lessons.
A balanced approach of work experience placements together with employability skills training beforehand, would better enable students to impress employers with their business and soft skills, and would lead to increased offers of employment, subject to graduating from
their college course.
In recent years, most universities have raised the profile and importance of employability skills development for undergraduates. There has been one common theme during my discussions with heads of employability and careers services at many HEIs – employability skills is now one of their Institution’s top three priorities.
Their challenge is how to attain universal support from departments within the university to integrate business and soft skills training into the curriculum. This is made harder when the academic culture is to focus on the degree rather than resultant outcome of having the degree – i.e. to obtain employment.
In October 2012, the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) was introduced2. It is an electronic document issued by HEIs to students on graduation. It provides a detailed record of a student’s academic and extra-curricular achievements to supplement the traditional
It has only been adopted by a minority of HEIs, and very few employers give it any credence.
HEI’s other challenge is undergraduate attitude or apathy. Here are some quotes from my discussions with university careers professionals:
“Whilst the employability agenda has raised the profile of careers services at long last, our students seem to be dropping off. We have more money, more initiatives, more placements and more employer engagement – only less students engaging.”
“Undergraduates level of ‘expectancy’ – ‘I’m paying a lot for this degree, so where do I sign to get my job’ or even ‘where is the list of jobs I can choose from’. One of the issues around engagement is linked to a student’s experience of careers advice prior to joining University. With less of this happening in schools/colleges, it seems likely that students will generally have less of an understanding of what we offer, and perhaps more crucially why it is important to engage.”
Crucially, undergraduates are engaging with their university careers service too late – often waiting to their final year before giving consideration to obtaining employment.
Like FECs, HEIs need to do more to embed employability skills development into the academic curriculum. It would boost the value and benefit of the HEAR and enable employers to gain a more rounded view of prospective job candidates.
There is also talk of the Government off-loading the student loan ‘book’ to HEIs. This will shift the financial burden onto the HEIs and force them to be responsible for ensuring graduates gain long-term employment so that the loans are fully repaid. This is a high risk strategy. On one hand, it would force HEIs to only offer degree courses that have a very high probability of achieving employment for graduates, but on the other hand it could lead to some HEIs going bankrupt if a significant number of graduates do not obtain or remain in employment.
This leads me to the ‘top of the pyramid’ – the employers. Employers remain concerned that too few graduates are ready for the world of work. They would like to see FECs and HEIs doing more to develop employability skills in young people, however, the reality is that it will take a long time to change the tertiary education system, as demonstrated in the examples above.
To this end, [pullquote]employers need to continue taking responsibility for the development of business and soft skills of their first-time employees[/pullquote]. This is an opportunity for employers of all sizes – small, medium and large – as shown in this quote from a careers professional:
“HESA3 reported around 550,000 HE graduates last year ; High Fliers reported that the top 100 employers provided fewer than 17,000 [3%] graduate training schemes.
“Graduate schemes are sold as hot commodities, whereas SMEs have a cool factor of zero.
“[pullquote]In reality, the vast majority of students who apply for graduate schemes experience rejection after rejection[/pullquote].
“Given that an average quality application takes a minimum of two hours to prepare, plus upload of targeted CV and targeted covering letter, it is little wonder that students opt out and resign themselves to what-will-be-will-be.
“We should actually move away from giving top employers priority, if we really want to help our students.”
Here are four steps to consider when putting an attractive graduate-style development programme in place for your young employees.
Step 1 – Your audience
A graduate-style programme should be purpose built with the audience in mind – i.e. inexperienced first-time employees who haven’t worked in a company previously and therefore don’t have any experience of working with colleagues, managers, partners and customers.
The table on page 18 explains why these skills are important for inexperienced employees and the future of the company.
Step 2 – Programme structure
Large employers often have the in-house resources to create, deliver and manage a graduate development programme. These programmes concentrate on rotating graduates around departments for six months at a time, over a two-year period. At the end of two years, the graduate will choose what area of the business they want to work in.
Few SMEs have the in-house resources to provide such a programme. Nor do they recruit sufficient graduates to justify the cost of running an in-house programme, so they need to outsource their graduate-style development programme to an external training provider.
If you fall into this category, then when looking for a provider, see that their programme is tailored for a young audience. Look for a programme with a duration of about a year, with classroom sessions spaced approximately monthly as this lessens the impact on the employee’s day-to-day business activities. This way your new employees will have time to development their knowledge and skills between sessions. See if the programme can extend to a second year to develop their knowledge and skills further, in line with more traditional graduate programmes. That way you’ll increase the likelihood of attracting and retaining these employees for the long term, making it an even more worthwhile investment.
Step 3 – Location
Go for a programme that brings together young employees from other local employers so that your employees can start to build a local business network, as well as a supportive cohort with whom they can discuss issues that arise as they start applying their new knowledge and skills. Ideally the location will be commutable from your office.
Step 4 – Experienced instructors
See that the instructors are experienced business people who can bring their career experiences into the classroom. If they have employed young people before then they can better understand the journey your young employees are on.
In summary, the benefits of offering a graduate-style young employee development programme are significant.
As an employer, it will enable you to attract good calibre graduates/candidates who will contribute to the future growth of your company. Your young employee knows they will be invested in for the long term and that their career will be given a solid foundation on which to build their future.
A fully-referenced version of this article is available on request.