Posted by

Marcus Mason, Head of Business, Education and Skill at the British Chambers of Commerce

14 Oct 2015

Recruiting people with the right skills and attitude is essential to the success, future growth and productivity, of any business. This hit home for me earlier this month when I visited a member of Black Country Chamber – a start-up engineering company, which designs hydraulic systems. The business is doing well but the Managing Director told me that she could double the size of the company if only they could find the right staff, especially at entry level.

Many local young people are simply unaware of the engineering opportunities available and as a result aren’t building up the experience to work in this specialised sector.  The unfortunate reality is that young people are three times more likely to be unemployed than the average person. We need to do all we can to equip them with the skills and experience they need to make it on and up the career ladder.

The BCC’s Business and Education Survey points to some of the solutions to address these issues. In July 2015 we surveyed 3,552 UK businesses and educational establishments, including schools, colleges and universities, as part of our campaign to bridge the gap between education and business. The results will be released in a series of infographics over the coming months, and we’ll be discussing the issues raised at our Business and Education Summit in December. We’ve already got some fantastic speakers lined up including Sir Michael Wilshaw, Lord Baker and senior head teachers and business leaders.

Our first infographic shows that a huge majority of business, school and college leaders want the government to recognise the importance of pre-16 work experience. Our research finds that 82% of business owners and 73% of education leaders believe secondary schools should offer work experience for all under 16s. 

In 2012 the last government removed the duty to provide work related learning for under 16s in England, despite disagreement from 90% of the respondents in the government consultation. Ministers argued this would free up schools to support their pupils in a more flexible manner, and that we should focus instead on work experience for 16-19 year olds.

What this failed to consider is that different forms of work experience not only help pupils develop relevant skills and experience of work but also support young people to make informed choices about their future. This is critical for pupils aged 16 needing to choose between various A-levels, or apprenticeships and vocational pathways. Our survey shows there is overwhelming support for pre-16 work experience from business and education leaders and to ensure consistent and high quality delivery of it there should be a statutory duty on English secondary schools to provide it.

That’s not to say that the previous model was perfect. A rigid two weeks work experience does not fit with the needs of all employers, schools or pupils. In fact, our survey shows that firms value a variety of work experience models, including work placements during school holidays, flexible work placements such as rotations of shorter stints during term, as well as business visits for groups of pupils. Any new duty to deliver pre-16 work experience needs to recognise these different approaches. 

Of course, many schools get this right already. Take St Albans Girls’ School, a Hertfordshire Chamber member. Their assistant head teacher is passionate about making sure the pupils are prepared for work and life after school – this means there is strategic support and buy-in flowing right from the top of the school. The school provides industry specific careers advice fairs that involve businesses from science and technology, legal or medical industries and working closely with the local Chamber. As early as Year 7, pupils do a day’s work shadowing with a local business and by Year 11 pupils do mock interviews where they come into school wearing suits, preparing them for longer work placements later in the year.

We need to make these types of activities the norm, not the exception. We recognise that schools and businesses need support to help delivery high quality work experience programmes. It is here that the newly created Careers and Enterprise Company, set up to improve connections between schools and employers, should focus its efforts.

We can’t forget that this is a joint responsibility and that businesses can also do more to support schools in developing and training tomorrow’s workforce. Chamber member businesses like Futura and Comtec Translations do their bit by offering regular work experience placements – most importantly they believe work experience needs to be meaningful, not just a tick box exercise. They invest time and resource in preparing and delivering quality work experience. But while our survey shows that businesses value work experience to help develop workplace skills, 36% still offer no work experience of any kind. So we must also look at ways to encourage even more businesses to offer young people exposure to the work place. 

Accredited Chambers of Commerce across the country are playing their part to bridge the gap between education and business by offering membership to schools and colleges and helping them connect with their local business community. However, this all needs to be underpinned by the government making pre-16 work experience a national priority and ensuring all young people gain early high quality exposure to the workplace. Developing the talents of the next generation will be a triple win for young people, business and our local economies.