If there is one headline that is guaranteed to get the old blood racing, it is the criticism that education isn’t preparing young people for employment and that the qualification delivered is ‘not fit for purpose’. These headlines are often cheap and poorly researched and tell nothing of the reality of the situation facing young people in full time education and the battles colleges have with engaging employers.
So, why is that young person I recruited not ready for work? They’ve been to college?
Before we attempt to unpack this headline, I fully accept that education plays a huge role in transitioning young people from school to the world of work; I am not abdicating this responsibility. But from experience, many young people apply to colleges after more than a decade of state schooling under-prepared for the journey in front of them.
There are multiple reasons for this, too numerous to explore in detail here, but the acceptance that young people do not simultaneously mature at the age of 16 is a good place to begin.
The expectation that all young people start college at 16, eager to make the journey to employment, then leave at 18, fully equipped with all the skills necessary to survive in the world of work is absurd. Some will, some might, some won’t.
Perhaps more absurd is the expectation that completing a few joints in carpentry, a course or two of bricks or a few twin socket outlets in a controlled workshop environment is somehow comparable to the skills learned on site. Predictable spoiler alert: it isn’t.
So, what is our expectation?
What do we expect young people to know and be able to do at the end of a two-year full time study programme?
I read comments on the internet that students can’t use a hammer, or a screwdriver, or a saw. That they couldn’t separate a copper end feed fitting elbow from a plastic push-fit type. That they aren’t ready for the world of work like we were, ‘back in the day’. But ‘back in the day’ is not today. There is much nostalgia around the good old days of five-year apprenticeships, achieved through rain, snow and vicious post-war lecturers who would tear you apart if you dared look up as they dictated yet another paragraph you would never read again. There is of course some truth in this, I’m no spring chicken and have experienced it myself, but it is not a new phenomenon. When I started working in education, the legendary City and Guilds 236 Electrical Installation qualification was being reformed and replaced. Not because there was a better equivalent, but because not enough people were passing, and the drop-out rate was too high. Education has changed, it’s moved on and not always for the better.
But to level this failing at young people is wrong – and yet they are the target of much bile spread across forums, Twitter, LinkedIn and the like. This generation is the product of our generation and of the generation before. The product of politics, policy, reform, economic shift, austerity, global financial crises, and capitalism. Back ‘in the day’, there were indentured apprenticeships and much more in the way of direct employment. There was more loyalty, trust and more altruism. Now, we find ourselves in the world of tier one contractors and corporations with budgets comparable to small nations with greater responsibilities to shareholders than to industry. Instead of traditional, family-run companies, we see piecework, tight margins and increasingly competitive tenders – all putting substantial pressure on sub-contractors. And these are the stresses that impact the ability to train and develop an apprentice. An apprentice often starts as a millstone; a person that takes time and patience to develop as they inevitably start off with low skills and experience and demand attention as they develop and grow. We are no longer in the time where many employers either value an apprentice, or do not have the time or capacity to develop the next generation of skilled workers in such a competitive world.
The result of all of this is a decline in apprenticeships (1) and ultimately an aging workforce and skills shortages (2), but why is this important to the point of this article? Put simply, I do not believe a young person can be made artificially work-ready. This notion is something that can only really be achieved in work and ideally through a formal apprenticeship. Yes, softer skills can be developed, such as timekeeping, punctuality, communication, problem-solving and the like, alongside a naturally developing maturity. Even the development of fundamental motor skills, in the absence of traditional pre-16 programmes in metalwork and woodwork that many of us more mature types did, can be developed. But the learning of a trade should be done within the trade, alongside skilled tradespeople, learning from direct experience and supported by those who learned themselves through these same experiences. The driving test analogy once broadcast from an old sage I worked alongside when I first entered education has stuck with me: it may teach you how to drive a car but can never prepare you for reality on the road. No single test can cover every scenario you will face, only experience developed over time will produce a competent driver. You learn to drive after you have passed your test and continue to learn thereafter; that’s how we develop.
So how do we develop young people and get them ready for the world of work?
Firstly, we need to recognise that this cannot be the sole responsibility of mainstream education. We also need to accept that every learner coming through a full-time construction course for example does not necessarily want to work in construction. The study programme and raising of the compulsory participation age in 2018 (3) means that every learner needs to be either an apprentice, in some form of employment with training or in full-time education. Just because a young person chooses to study a particular programme full time, it doesn’t always follow that this is their long-term career choice, and often isn’t. For some, these years of education are purely formative, a journey to an as yet unknown destination and, crucially in many instances, a transition from adolescence to early adulthood.
Secondly, we need to get these learners that are engaged onto site. We need employers to step up (and we wholly praise and thank those very highly that do). The only way for a young person to get truly work-ready is through experience and learning, a combination of working on site and learning through education. The very best employers we work with sponsor workshops, they provide expertise to support the learning and development of the individuals through masterclasses, they work alongside teachers in workshops voluntarily, helping them assess and develop students with critique and praise from a real-world perspective. They also provide genuine work experience opportunities and apprenticeships. As a result, they get to develop skills in young people before they even reach their place of work. They get to pick the most motivated and enthusiastic individuals to train and develop as apprentices. In short, they develop a loyal, well-skilled and progressive workforce that benefits them in the long run, and from a college perspective, there can be no better outcome.
What is stopping this development?
The issue with headlines decrying education is that this fuels the argument and amplifies the negativity. We have some great young people who are never given the chance because some employers who don’t value apprenticeships, or are maybe on the fence, or are generally ‘young-person-phobic’, read these headlines and have their beliefs confirmed and reinforced. Others go straight to family or friends for recruits, but by not engaging with colleges for a better alternative, they miss the opportunity to both develop and choose the very best fit for their company at that moment in time.
Until more employers step up and engage with colleges, we will continue to see these headlines and frustratingly shoulder blame again. We see where it works, and the benefits are substantial to the employer, the college and more importantly, the young person. But it has to be a joined-up approach. There has to be mutual recognition that work-readiness is a competency that will only be fully achieved like any other competency. Whilst a college can provide the technical knowledge, it ultimately cannot provide the experience, and until more employers step forward to help, we will forever be caught in a spiral of blame and negative headlines which ultimately, helps no one.
Neil Sambrook, Director of Faculty for STEAM at Walsall College
About Neil: Neil has been in education for over 20 years, primarily teaching and assessing adult learners and apprentices in electrical installation, followed by some work with full-time learners and latterly into curriculum management. Neil started training as an electrician at the tail end of the 80s and worked for numerous companies as a sub-contractor in the 1990s, but was influenced by a young, dynamic lecturer during his time at college to want to go into teaching.
Neil is currently the Director of Faculty for STEAM at Walsall College, which encompasses everything from construction and engineering through to science, computing, and the creative industries.