From education to employment

It takes a network

When I studied economics, I was always more interested in understanding how and why businesses and individuals made decisions rather than the more macro side of how economies worked.  In truth, the latter probably had more maths than I could tolerate.

You start with simple models that assume everyone is rational and has access to all the information they need to make full and informed decisions. You go onto realise that much of our decision making is affected by the networks we are part of and information flows are far from perfect; even in an increasingly digital world.

UKCES is in the business of encouraging ambition – changing how businesses and individuals invest in skills.  Effecting that change might not be as simple as a finger on the scales of a business owner’s cost-benefit calculation – it could be about influences on them from their supplier; their client; their accountant. Or it could be as impersonal as the fragility of their entire extended network.

Everyone relies on others at times. We have networks of contacts for recreation (for me, it’s my motorbiking friends); for emotional support (my family); for professional development (the inspiring chairmen I’ve been fortunate enough to work for).

But building up these networks takes time.   So this week heralded more disappointing news for young people with the publication of our report showing that word-of-mouth is now the most common way for businesses to recruit new staff.  At the start of a career, you don’t have professional contacts of your own.   Not only can you not tap into employment opportunities, but without networks, employers can’t tap into you.  This needs to change – urgently – otherwise, young people are instantly locked out of the largest number of opportunities.

And this is a vicious circle: without being able to get a start in work, young people will not be able to develop the professional contacts that let them get on and get ahead.

I’m proud of the approach we take to young people at UKCES. Over the past couple of years, we’ve given high-quality, paid internships to over 20 new graduates and five young apprentices – not bad, considering we have fewer than 100 staff in total.  During lunch with them recently, the Labour peer, Lord Adonis, told our apprentices that he felt government could offer more apprenticeships.  With 25 per cent of our staff under 25 years old, I’m quietly proud of our record in this area.

This month, one of our Apprentices was the face of National Apprenticeship Week. And we have links with Sheffield Hallam University for an annual student placement from their business department. This is a fantastic set of schemes, and I’m always impressed with the energy and ideas these talented young people bring to work every day. But opportunities needn’t be as formal as an Apprenticeship or even as structured as a summer work placement. Businesses can help young people in many ways; by visiting schools; giving careers talks or practice interviews.

Yet our research shows that the most common reason employers give for not providing these sorts of opportunities is simple – they haven’t been approached.

My message is simple.  If you don’t ask, you don’t get.  Links with businesses are so vital for the future of colleges and learners that it’s worth investing some energy into getting it right.  Asking local businesses to do one small thing for your learners can pay small dividends today, but potentially huge ones tomorrow.

With our youth policy at UKCES, we hope to give a start to bright, hard-working young people as they start to build their networks – and we may even affect the networks we work with.

Michael Davis is chief executive of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), a social partnership that aims to raise skill levels to help drive enterprise, create more and better jobs and economic growth

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