This piece first appeared over on FE News.
I was recently invited by City & Guilds to take part in a panel discussion at The Telegraph Festival of Education, held at Wellington College on 23rd and 24th June. The panel was chaired by City & Guilds’ Director of Assessment Policy, Research and Compliance, Patrick Craven, and featured Tony Ellender, Emerging Talent Manager at Balfour Beatty, Chris McLean, Deputy Principal at Milton Keynes College, and myself. The subject at hand was “Why Further Education and Schools Must Collaborate More in the Future,” and I wanted to take this opportunity to share some of the thoughts that I offered in my opening statement.
Before coming on to the actual question, we need to back up a bit and look at why this question is even asked. It is universally recognised by politicians, media, employers, educators and even to some degree by young people, that we have a huge skills gap in this country. What is this skills gap? Stated simply, it is seen as employers not getting a ready supply of people with the skills they need coming through.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, but behind this skills gap lies something else; something even more fundamental to understanding why we have such a problem. That something else is an information gap. What do I mean by that?
Let me give an illustration. ABC Construction decides that the ordering of materials is something that could be done much cheaper and more efficiently by a third party company, so they hire XYZ Construction Intermediaries to do the job for them. However, rather than giving XYZ specific details of what materials they need for the site they are working on, instead they leave the task entirely to them. But instead of taking the time and the trouble to research the specific materials that are needed for this particular site, XYZ assume that they can just repeat the order they made for the last site they worked on. What’s going to happen? Well, barring the extraordinarily unlikely possibility that this site is an exact carbon copy of the last, there is going to be a bad alignment of materials to needs.
So what was the problem? Was it with the materials? Not at all. They may well be of excellent quality, but if they are not what is needed for this particularly site, then they are going to be essentially useless. Was it with the ability of XYZ to order materials from builders’ merchants? Again no. The materials were ordered and they arrived at the site on time. So what is the problem? Fundamentally, it is a problem of lack of communication between ABC Construction and XYZ Intermediaries. In other words, it is an information gap, not a materials gap that is the problem.
This is fundamentally what is involved in causing the skills gap. Young people may well be learning really needful skills, and they may well be taught in colleges that genuinely mean well, but if the skills they are learning do not match what employers need, then there is going to be a mismatch resulting in both decreased productivity for employers and decreased employability for young people.
We highlighted this problem in the Great Expectations project we did with City & Guilds at the end of last year. The report was based on a YouGov survey of over 3,000 14-19 year olds, and what was abundantly clear from the results is that young people generally aspire to a very narrow range of occupations. So for example, jobs like Medical practitioners, Secondary education teachers, Psychologists, Programmers and software development professionals were all hugely oversubscribed. In addition, of the 359 occupation codes that respondents could have chosen, only 34% were actually picked, and the majority of these by fewer than 10 people.
What this suggests is that young people simply don’t have good information about the career options that are actually out there. This has been backed up by the Commons Sub-Committee on Education, Skills and the Economy, which noted that:
“Too many young people are leaving education without the tools to help them consider their future options or how their skills and experiences fit with opportunities in the job market. This failure is exacerbating skills shortages and having a negative impact on the country’s productivity.”
Any solution must therefore include getting more objective information out there, but the question is how?
Which brings us on to the main question being discussed. The FE sector and schools are key to getting better information to young people. Colleges are naturally close to the labour market, at the joining edge of education and work, with links to employers. Schools, on the other hand, are in a great position to offer career planning in formative years.
We have seen some great examples of colleges working with schools to address this problem and to supply better and more objective advice to young people. For example, Chesterfield College have been partnering with their local schools, such as Shirebrook Academy, which is situated in an area of fairly high deprivation, to enhance their careers advice and give pupils better information on the employment options that await them. Chichester College is another institution that has developed their careers service, which includes objective labour market intelligence, for the wider community including local schools. You can read more about how these colleges are doing this here and here.
Working together, colleges can look to bridge the gap between employers and young people by providing the objective information to schools that young people really need to make more informed and better careers decisions. It is through this combination of access to young people that schools have, with the college taking the time to research employer needs, that can help to plug holes in careers knowledge, and provide a broader view of labour market opportunities to young people than they are currently getting.