From education to employment

What does employability really mean?

‘What do I need to do to get a job?’ It’s a question that is being asked in households across the country. Today 2.52 million people in the UK are unemployed and youth unemployment continues to hover around the one million mark. The environment for job seekers continues to be tough. Figures from last year showed that, on average, 18 people applied for every empty job advertised in Britain. This is a sad situation. The underuse of talent is bad for the country’s businesses, bad for UK plc and bad for those individuals struggling with the associated ill effects of unemployment.

And yet despite the number of jobseekers in our country, employers struggle to find people with the skills they need to expand and grow. So where is it going wrong? Are we doing enough to equip people with the knowledge and skills they need to get a job? Do we know what employers are really looking for in a fast-moving, globalised economy? And fundamentally, do we really understand what is meant by ’employability’?

Last month, City & Guilds organised an event to discuss these very questions. We brought together major employers, industry representatives, apprentices and the Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Chuka Umunna MP, to discuss the challenges we face in developing the skills the country needs to compete in a global marketplace. We heard from employers about the positive impact good apprenticeship programmes have on their organisation’s ability to attract and retain talented people. We heard from young people about how their apprenticeships have aided their career progression. Finally we heard from Principals of FE colleges about the wide range of options and qualifications they offer to their students to help them become employable.

While it was heartening to hear how vocational learning can help make people more employable, something more fundamental emerged about the key to employability: it ultimately comes down to having the right attitude and a real awareness of how to function in the workplace. Employers told us that enthusiasm and a committed attitude are crucial attributes for young people entering the world of work. Often this attitude needs to be nurtured which is something the vocational route actively encourages. Apprentices, for example, gain a qualification whilst learning on the job and because they’ve chosen their specific qualification, they already have an enthusiasm for their role and their industry, resulting in more ambition and willingness to continually develop skills.

However, as Labour’s Chuka Umunna summarised, it’s not only attitudes towards work that need to change and there’s still some way to go before the vocational, work-based route is recognised as being on a par with academia: ‘We need to talk up vocational options. Young people have to know the opportunities and experiences are there. We need proper careers information, advice and guidance which moves along with changes to industry. But we also need to change attitudes and behaviours so that technical and practical qualifications are put on the same footing as academic.’

So the battle cry has been issued. We know that vocational qualifications make people employable. We know employers value them. But we also know that there is still a long way to go to change perceptions amongst young people and those who influence them, so they know about the various routes to success. That is our challenge, and we choose to accept it.

Chris Jones is chief executive and director general of City & Guilds, the awarding body

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