Rob Slane is content and editorial manager for Economic Modelling Specialists Int. (EMSI)

Imagine the following scenario. You have a boy of 15 who doesn't really know what he wants to do with his life.

He likes working with his hands, but he has been taught to think that manual work is second-rate and won't pay very much.

So he goes down the A-levels and university route because that's what "everybody else does" and because "that will get him a good job at the end of it."

He then enrols into university to do a degree in a subject he doesn't much care for, learns a bunch of skills that don't fit with his natural aptitude, and then walks into a job which is just not really his thing.

Now let's back up and start the scenario again. You have a boy of 15 who really doesn't know what he wants to do with his life. He is good with his hands, but he has been taught to think that manual work is second rate and won't pay very much. He considers going down the A-levels and university route, because that's what "everybody else does and because "that's how to get a good job." However, just as he is on the point of making this life-directing decision, he comes across a careers adviser with a difference. This careers adviser doesn't just suggest the university route but rather takes the time and trouble to find out what the young man is good at and what he likes doing. This careers adviser doesn't make suggestions based on a whim, but is armed with the latest information and trends on local occupations, wages and skill-sets, which he shows to the young man in order to guide him into making a good decision. Following the advice, he enrols into college to do a vocational course in a subject he loves, learns a bunch of skills that fit perfectly with his natural gifts, and then walks into a job which is right up his street.

Multiply the first scenario across an entire population of young people and what are you left with? Often you are left with the wrong people, learning the wrong skills and then going into the wrong jobs. Multiply the second scene across an entire population of young people and what happens? The right people learning the right skills and going into the right jobs.

What employers are yearning for

We all want to see the second scenario, don't we? If a recent survey carried out by City & Guilds in conjunction with The Edge Foundation is anything to go by employers most certainly do. Amongst other findings, their survey of 1,000 small, medium and large employers found that:

  • 72% of employers see vocational qualifications as essential for improving the skills of young people and preparing them for work and 53% rated vocational qualifications as more valuable than academic qualifications.

  • 83% across a variety of sectors believe young people need to be made more aware of the options available to them to progress to their chosen career.

There are two aspects to these findings. One is the fact that employers really do rate vocational qualifications and apprenticeships highly and would like to see more people trained in this way; the other is that businesses are on the receiving end of a lack of good quality, joined-up careers information.

More emphasis on vocational learning

On the first of these points, Jan Hodges, CEO of The Edge Foundation commented:

"We already know how important high quality vocational education is, but it is refreshing to hear how highly employers rate it. We have skills gaps emerging in many sectors within the UK and it is crucial that young people are given the right training and encouragement to be able to fill these gaps."

If employers want to see more people with vocational qualifications coming through their doors, the answer is -- at least on paper -- relatively straightforward: colleges need to be well attuned to the type of skills that employers in their region demand so that they can provide the appropriate training. There are two main ways in which this can be done:

  • There must be good interaction between colleges and local employers, with colleges finding out exactly what these businesses need so that courses and apprenticeships can then be tailored accordingly.

  • Equally important is for colleges to have at their fingertips in-depth knowledge of the labour market in which they operate. This can only be done with good, solid labour market information (LMI), giving colleges data on industries, occupations and trends in their area.

The need for better careers advice

The second feature of the statistics mentioned above is access to good quality careers advice.

According to Chris Jones, chief executive of City & Guilds:

"Employers are crying out for young people who have the right skills to add value to their business. Vocational qualifications can provide these skills - but how many people know about them? Careers advice provision in schools is limited, uninspiring and often purely focused on university."

Both the Major and Blair governments expanded the university sector enormously on the pretext that this would produce a highly educated workforce. However, if the results from the survey are anything to go by, far from producing a people with an education tailored to the demands of the labour market out there, there is a big mismatch between the skills possessed by employees and the skills demanded by employers.

So how do we get to a position where the right people go through the right training into the right jobs? Once again, the answer is two-fold:

  1. There needs to be a wholesale shift away from the idea that university is necessarily the best route for many school leavers to go down, which means that careers advice in schools needs to be far more tailored to the skills and aptitude of students and far more open to suggesting the vocational option.
  2. Equally important is for careers advice to be geared to fulfilling the needs of local employers. This means giving learners access to information showing what employment opportunities are out there, how much these jobs pay, what the expected trends in these occupations are, and what occupations exist which require a similar skill-set.

In conclusion

Facilitating discussions between colleges and employers and giving good careers advice to learners pondering their future are essential components in addressing both areas of employer concern: the shortage of skilled workers and a lack of good careers guidance for young people. At the same time, of equal importance is good, solid industry and occupations data giving colleges a window on the shape and direction of their local labour market, and providing learners with access to information on employment opportunities, salaries, trends and occupations with similar skills.

When we start to see all these components acting in concert together, then the concerns of employers will begin to be alleviated and we will be that much closer to getting the right people through the right training into the right jobs.

Rob Slane is content and editorial manager for Economic Modelling Specialists Int. (EMSI), a CareerBuilder company that provides industry-leading employment data and economic analysis via web tools and custom reports

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