From education to employment

Qualified for life

This week educators celebrated Vocational Qualifications Day under a shadow of the news that long term youth unemployment has risen by nearly tenfold in the last decade.

The last decade has also seen more young people choosing university as a route to employment, but with graduate unemployment figures reaching the same levels as those who leave school without qualifications, it is clear that the UK’s current approach to preparing young people for the world of work requires systemic changes.

The provision of careers guidance is a critical starting point.  With the closure of Connexions, the recent launch of the National Careers Service, and the expansion of job outcomes-based funding for FE colleges, the time is ripe for education policy makers and practitioners to make three fundamental improvements that will ensure careers guidance plays a role in reversing the trend of rising youth unemployment.

First, careers guidance must be localised, and tailored to the needs of local employers.  By providing students with accurate information about the professional and vocational careers where the most opportunities exist, more young people will be able to choose educational pathways that lead them to work – not the JobCentre.  For FE colleges, this also means taking a longer-term approach when developing and marketing their course offering.  Providing students better access to labour market intelligence and more exposure to local employers, colleges can help learners identify the right career goals early on.  This can be achieved by colleges working more collaboratively with their Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) or local Chamber of Commerce.

Second, schools, colleges and employers must begin exposing students to career information earlier.  Why is it that more professionals are invited to speak with primary school pupils than those embarking on their GCSEs?  If students can envisage themselves in exciting and meaningful careers early on, they are empowered to make much more meaningful choices about the remaining years of their education.  Evidence shows that work experience opportunities are most effective when the placement relates specifically to a student’s area of interest or long-term goals.  While for the professional classes family and community often do this job of exposing young people to the possible future careers, by exposing all young people to the wide range of available careers, we can raise aspirations and tackle social inequality.

Finally, employability skills must be at the heart of educators’ approach to careers guidance.  Our research into the value of vocational skills and apprenticeships shows that both employers and young people recognise that securing meaningful work in today’s economy requires training beyond earned qualifications, namely an increased focus on employability or “soft skills”. Communication skills, organisational skills, time keeping, team work and motivation are ranked as more important than qualifications achieved by the young people and employers we interviewed. Careers advice must help students identify the softer skills they need, and schools and colleges must do more to incorporate them into the student experience.  Learners must leave formal education with not only work-ready qualifications but armed with a work-ready attitude.

It has been two years on from when the Wolf Review suggested we shift the focus from “the accrual of qualifications” to “employment outcomes” and this is the clear direction of travel for government.  For this goal to be realised, careers services must provide the signposts to guide students from education to employment.  Such an approach will not only empower young people to build lasting careers, but prove their contribution to a competitive labour market ready to compete in the global economy of the 21st century.

Mike Lee is director of skills and young people at Working Links, which provides advice, guidance, access to training and supports people seeking work

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