From education to employment

The importance of teaching young people soft skills

Peter Westgarth, CEO of The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award

#EmotionalIntelligence – Communication, team-work and resilience are often the missing ingredients young people need to succeed in the workplace.

This year’s CBI/ Pearson Education and Skills Survey painted a mixed picture of today’s workforce: the report showed a third of companies are concerned with young people’s attitudes to work, being dissatisfied with their ‘behaviours of self-management and resilience’.

With businesses in the UK finding it more and more difficult to recruit employees with the right set of skills, it’s the ‘soft skills’ of communication, team-work and resilience that are often the missing ingredient for employers.

As Chief Executive of The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, I have witnessed thousands of young people transforming their lives through developing the skills that employers truly value.

A survey we commissioned recently proved that it is soft skills that are increasingly desired by employers: 95% of employers surveyed regard them as equally or more important than academic achievements and 98% would urge young people to invest more time in enhancing them.

What’s more, 9 in 10 employers told us that young people with soft skills progress faster in the workplace. Understandably, employers want to take on candidates who will be productive for the workplace from the word ‘go’.

Supporting students to achieve good academic grades should not, therefore, be the only goal of education.

What’s needed is time to develop and gain experience outside of a classroom environment. Giving young people the opportunity to take part in extracurricular activities and volunteering, allows them to become well-rounded individuals and enhance their employability. It also boosts their self-worth, confidence and sense of responsibility: in our recent survey, 84% of young people doing their DofE told us that volunteering makes them feel more responsible.

Those attributes are indispensable in the modern workplace and more businesses are recognising the need to take a holistic approach to the personal and career development of young people.

Some innovative UK companies, such as British Gas and Royal Mail have integrated the DofE into their apprenticeship programmes, which gives them the opportunity to develop young employees’ confidence, ability to work as a team, and leadership skills.

British Gas, which has been running the DofE since 2006, believes the DofE helps young people develop the essential soft skills needed to provide excellent customer service as well as build their confidence and improve their mental and physical wellbeing. Eleven years on, British Gas has documented tangible benefits that the DofE brings to the business: employees who have achieved their Gold Award had fewer complaints and more customer referrals.

Matthew Bateman, British Gas Managing Director for UK Field Operations believes that in customer-focused businesses like British Gas, the ability to relate to customers and their lives is essential and it’s through DofE activities such as volunteering in the local community, that young people can develop these indispensable people skills.

Seeing some of the UK’s biggest businesses acknowledging the importance of holistic personal development of their young workforce is encouraging. With 93% of business leaders surveyed saying they are more likely to employ a candidate who can demonstrate achievements beyond curriculum studies, programmes such as the DofE are needed now more than ever and investment in young people’s transferable soft skills benefits both employers and young people.

British Entrepreneur, and ex-Dragon’s Den investor, Sarah Willingham believes that the term ‘soft skills’ does not adequately reflect the importance of skills like communication, team work and resilience, and neither do I.

Real life skills’ or ‘core skills’ would give them more gravitas and better convey the fact that when it comes to young people and their employability, the value of these skills cannot be underestimated.

So, make a New Year’s resolution to explore how you can introduce DofE to your college.

Peter Westgarth, CEO of The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. 

About Peter Westgarth: Appointed Chief Executive of The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award in 2005, Peter has led the development of eDofE, the on-line system for recording and managing DofE activity, professionalised organisational processes and, most importantly, over the past decade has increased Award completion by 93% whilst costs have increased by just 35%.

Prior to that, Peter was UK Chief Executive of Young Enterprise. He held the post from 1990 to 2005 and was President of YE Europe for a period of 6 years, growing the organisation from 6 founding member countries to 19 member nations.

In 2003 he was awarded the Bata JA Life-time Achievement Award for his services to enterprise education. Peter was also awarded the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion in June 2006

Peter was UK Director of the “Livewire” youth business programme from 1985-1990. He is a qualified teacher, has worked in newspaper advertising and has several years’ experience as a professional charity fund-raiser.

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