Grades v attitudes

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Written by Elizabeth Eyre on 1 November 2013 in News

The participants in a recent roundtable discussion revealed what employers are really looking for from aspiring young employees. Elizabeth Eyre reports

Attitudes, behaviours and potential are more important to organisations than exam results when it comes to employing young people in entry-level jobs.

The emphasis on getting A-C passes in maths and English by the age of 16 or 18 is wrong and is acting as a barrier to those youngsters who are not academically inclined. Schools should be helping them develop the soft skills, attitudes and behaviours that are the keys to success.

That was the view of a group of L&D professionals participating in a roundtable discussion held last month at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills by Training Journal in association with learndirect. In a wide-ranging, two-hour debate, they argued that, although good maths and English skills were important for people's long-term career development, technology had rendered them obsolete in many entry-level jobs and soft skills and potential were now more important.

The panel comprised Joanna Thomson, a business partner in the people and skills team at Grant Thornton; Martyn Sloman, principle advisor to TJ's L&D2020 research project; Catherine Jackman, L&D manager for EMEA financial services advisory group at Ernst & Young; Shaun O'Brien, L&D manager for customer services at npower; Martin Wainman, an expert in talent management at Omni RMS; Mike Thompson, head of early careers at Barclays; Dereth Wood, director of learning at learndirect, and Peter Marsh, head of OD at Napf Pharmaceuticals. The discussion was chaired by Elizabeth Eyre, editor of Training Journal.

Introducing the discussion, Eyre said: "We are here to talk about giving young people the soft skills - or employability skills - that they need to be successful in the workplace. We hear a lot of complaints from employers these days that young people are lacking skills such as teamwork, communication and problem-solving, and calls for the education system to prepare youngsters more thoroughly for the world of work."

Wood talked about research learndirect had done into the challenges facing young people, education institutions and employers (Ability x Skills + (Knowledge) = the right formula for change?).

Ithad revealed a "huge mismatch in understanding" between young people's perceptions of what employers were looking for from them and what employers thought they wanted from young people. "This led us to think that the interface, that whole interaction of understanding of what employers want, is not embedded enough in institutions," she said.

She listed a number of reforms within education that she felt were important and steps in the right direction, such as changes to the maths curriculum that would allow young people to take a practical maths qualification post-16, but she also highlighted the recent OECD report on skills among 16- to 24-year-olds that ranked the UK 21st out of 22 countries, which she described as "a shocking position that we need to take on board", the fact that remedial English and maths work was being done by bodies outside education, including employers, a lack of quality work experience and the ageing population.

Jobs were changing, and people needed skills such as teamwork, communication, self-management and managing digital resources, the ability to use their initiative and a positive attitude.

"If we've got a broader curriculum in schools, what is it employers are saying about maths and English, having a positive attitude, team working, communication skills and work experience?" she asked the rest of the panel. "What are the other options to thinking about the maths and English curriculum? Are there other opportunities to look at applied, practical maths and English? How can we get a greater focus on vocational pathways deeper into schools and universities? Employers need to help with that - how? How can we make the best use of technology?"

Eyre asked whether the panel agreed with Wood. O'Brien said: "One of the key components that will help drive the right responses from our younger population is around attitudes and behaviours. For me, it's about attitudes, behaviours, skills and knowledge to formulate a complete package. We really need to focus on that."

When asked how he thought schools should develop attitudes and behaviours in pupils, he said the UK had a responsibility to "pull away" from a culture of seeing people who sought the help of organisations like learndirect as failures. "Our young people today do feel very vulnerable and do feel they are lacking and not worthy of employment. It's a real hot potato; how we grasp that and do something about it is a challenge."

Thompson felt young people were being made to feel like failures by an increasing focus on attaining an A-C grade in English and maths by 16 or 18. "The reality is that education, work and young people need to work together to help the young person attain at their pace, in the way they learn, rather than keeping young kids in a classroom that doesn't suit them, that they don't like. Let's find ways to help them attain; businesses are working with them through an apprenticeship or other means."

He was afraid that the current "fixation that if you don't get A-C you're a failure" was working its way into recruitment and an increasing number of apprenticeships, even entry-level ones, were requiring A-C passes in English and maths. "More and more [this requirement] is becoming a barrier to ongoing attainment and education and development; we could end up with a group of people who just can't get onto a pathway because they're not suited to the classroom and they can't get an apprenticeship."

Npower was using technology to create video-based just-in-time learning that was immediately available whenever employees wanted it, said O'Brien. And when it came to using technology, Generation Z - today's young people - were "streets ahead". He said: "Does it really matter about maths and English for Generation Z because technology will be the frontier - it will be what happens. These people, whom the country is considering as failures, actually, on the technology front, outshine us. It's their world. We need to step back and take a look at ourselves - are we supplying the right things for our younger generation?"

Thompson replied that maths and English were important for long-term career success but not for entry-level jobs. For those positions, people needed "attitude, aptitude, motivation and potential" and their employers could train them in the necessary functional skills.

"When I first joined Barclays, I had to balance my till and count the money - I needed quite a lot of maths skills," he said. "These days the machine does it for you. Technology has overtaken the need for basic skills in maths and English."

O'Brien asked whether, today, it was about "the interaction" and Thompson said, yes, it was about whether employees could communicate effectively with customers and present themselves well. "It's a very different set of skills that we are looking for today, compared with ten, or even five, years ago."

Thomson agreed that success in the workplace, especially at a professional services firm like Grant Thornton, depended as much on skills such as customer service, personal presentation, problem solving and communication as it did on technical skills. She said: "People are very much measured against what they do but also how they do it. When you're in school or university, it's very task-focused but how do you help people understand that the way you go out and interact with a client is equally important? How do you take that kind of competency and get it in the schools? I don't think it's happening."

Marsh said the issue of how people interact - "how we are with each other" - was important. His son's school rewarded its pupils for behaviour that reflected its values as much as for their academic achievement, so he was learning "how to be as well as how to do" . That made Marsh think that the education system was not just about schools: numerous stakeholders had an interest in developing young people, including employers and parents, and they all had an equal responsibility to enable youngsters to fulfil their potential.

"How do you motivate young people to want to learn to be the best they can be, so it's not us pushing it onto them but them pulling it from us?" he asked. "As a company, we spend far too much time developing stuff to give to people, only to find that they've pulled stuff off the internet far quicker than we could create it.

"There's something about the self-managed learning piece there that may be key - learning to learn, in terms of both doing stuff and building relationships."

Thompson felt there was an onus in the skills system on schools to support young people but he asked whether there was also an onus on the young people themselves to be proactive and to get work experience. "Sometimes it's not all about the skills, it's about the individual - you want them to be self-starters."

Marsh said that, along with the knowledge and the skills, the "right experiences" were needed to help young people develop those skills. How could organisations help them get those experiences?

Thompson didn't think businesses were doing enough in that respect. Barclays had 5,000 young people visit it for work experience this year - but, as a big organisation, it knew it could do more to help young people and it was encouraging others to do the same.

"Both sides have to think a bit differently and work a bit differently," he said. "Business has to take more ownership of grabbing into the education system and helping young people through."

Jackman said her own organisation ran a number of different initiatives, from traditional graduate recruitment programmes to ones linked to corporate social responsibility that focus on school leavers, such as mentoring schemes.

"There are more schemes [like these] coming up but we need to develop that area," she said. "We are in the process of doing so but more can be done."

You can see more of the debate on the TJ website at You can also download learndirect's report Ability x Skills + (Knowledge) = the right formula for change? at


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