Posted by

Nora Senior

22 Jul 2013

In the past three years, British companies have defied the odds by hiring far more workers than the anaemic GDP growth figures would suggest. However the proportion of young people aged between 16 and 24 in employment has barely budged. Why is it that our young people are being left behind while Britain gets back to work, and who is to blame?

Businesses I speak to up and down the country want to work with young people, and are happy to train and employ them. But they are often disheartened if not downright frustrated, to find school leavers and graduates do not have the minimum skills they need to join the workforce. Poor literacy and numeracy, behaviour and attitudes that don’t meet business expectations – the list goes on.

The OECD recently warned that youth unemployment was the UK’s biggest challenge – and I tend to agree. Schools, local councils, and government can and must do more, working with businesses, to radically change the way we get our young people ready for the world of work.

Firstly, the government must stop shutting business out of the education system. In England, the government has removed the duty on schools to provide young people with work experience placements, and has replaced the ‘Connexions’ face-to-face careers advice with information that is only available online. This is because the Education Secretary believes that head teachers know what is best for their pupils.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the real world of work, the truism is that head teachers don’t always know best whichever education system they are working to, and some continue to prioritise time and money on boosting performance in exam league tables. Michael Gove must accept that it takes more than three good A-level grades to prosper in the real world, and both he and Ofsted should be judging schools on students’ employability skills rather than exam results alone.

But we can’t just leave it to teachers to inspire and instill enterprise in their pupils, especially as so many lack direct experience of business themselves. For that reason, local schools should welcome businesspeople with open arms. Businesses shouldn't have to bang the doors down or convince head teachers that spending time in the classroom is a good thing for pupils. Students must understand what opportunities are available to them and learn about the private sector, which is after all, the source of 90 percent of new jobs.

Young people cannot match their talents and interests to a future career without understanding the full range of jobs available to them – those where their skills will be most in demand and best rewarded, and the qualifications required to gain those jobs. Careers education should be added to the national curriculum to help advise and educate these young people as their make the choices that will shape their lives – that means talking about the world of work before they make subject choices, not after they have been made.

We must also put a stop to the constant tinkering around the edges by successive governments to a qualifications system that baffles teachers and employers alike. O Levels, GCEs, GCSEs, A-Levels, A2 Levels, SATS, Baccalaureates - is it really any wonder that we are being left adrift?

As President of the British Chambers of Commerce, breaking down barriers between business and young people will be one of my top priorities. There is no silver-bullet solution to the youth employment challenge, yet there are some simple things that can be done here and now to help educate our young people about business. First though, the government must stop fixating on academics alone, and ensure that soft workplace skills are taught in our schools, or young people will continue to be left out in the cold. Getting businesspeople into schools to provide a real world insight into the world of work is the way to get pupils excited. Once you instill a passion for enterprise in our young people, the sky is well and truly the limit. And we may just avoid nurturing a future generation of young people who think that being a ‘celebrity’ is a career!