Key skills remain in short supply among our young people. A recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) survey revealed that people in England aged 16 to 24 were less literate and numerate than those aged 55 to 65.

As the country begins to recover from many years of a recessionary economy, we cannot afford to waste young people's potential. Through further education options, we can show young people how increasing their skills levels, and getting some basic workplace knowledge, can help them confidently aspire to careers, as opposed to a lifetime of 'gap-filler' jobs.

Businesses increasingly need both technical and 'soft' skills with the right combination of motivation, attitudes and behaviours. Further Education (FE) professionals are pivotal in ensuring the widest possible dissemination of career planning guidance and giving young people the best access to relevant work experience. By learning more about how industry works and what skills they need, young people gain essential self-confidence that will enable them to take full advantage of all available opportunities.

A sixth-form student, called Adam, from Chester-le-Street near Durham remarked that a recent mentored work-experience opportunity helped him to plan his next steps. Adam said, "As a result, the whole virtual work experience programme has developed my career ideas as well as help me to increase my confidence and communication skills."

Adam is studying Business, English Language, Maths and Further Maths, and says, "For me, the most important aspect of the programme was the chance to communicate with a business person. I had my very own mentor, coach and adviser to support me for a month and it really helped me."

Companies rarely engage with students at this professional level. However there is an online and offline resource, the Financial and Legal Skills Partnership's (FLSP) Directions, which enables this and also provides a range of regional events for students and careers advisers, as well as delivering careers workshops in schools.

Indeed, Adam only heard about these opportunities when one of the programme's ambassadors visited his school. FE providers can be the trailblazing conduit that helps bring employers into the classrooms so that young people like Adam can engage in useful discussion on labour market needs, employability skills and career management skills development.

Middle and senior management working in colleges can also effectively contribute to increased participation in such programmes. Through guidance from an FE professional, companies will realise they can make a difference to the future of their business and to that of young people, by offering a flexible bridge between education and industry.

FLSP's GetInGetOn initiative provides an engaging, immersive and interactive online learning experience relevant to working in the financial services sector and the legal sector from January 2014. Adam says that when signing up to the GetInGetOn programme, the process was simple, and the website easy to use. The specially designed online platform offers a virtual work experience, including e-mentoring from a trained professional working in the sector.

FE professionals have a critical role in showing local employers just how those few hours spent in mentoring young people can be so invaluable. As Adam explains, "It is a great opportunity to hear first hand about the world of work. I made the most of my e –career mentor. Their hints and tips will really help me over the coming months as I prepare to leave sixth form and enter the world of work."

By virtually extending young people's formal education into the practical world of work, FE professionals can also ensure a positive change in business attitudes towards those young people's future employability. Through nurturing the embryonic potential of young people, companies can have extended access to fresh, eager and talented candidates, irrespective of gender, race or geographical restrictions.

As Adam discovered, by gaining access to industry professionals, young people can have e-conversations about careers and working in the sector, and they can also start to build professional networks.

The 'GetInGetOn' programme has already achieved a milestone in engaging more than 150 e-career mentors, and more than 200 young people are benefiting from the programme, which is part funded by the UKCES. The blended approach of 'Directions' products and services provide schools and colleges with accessible tools to ensure information is relevant for young people and for employers.

As Adam concludes, "Inspiration from a mentor working in the sector was exactly what I needed. I am now more focused and inspired to progress with my apprenticeship."

In the challenging, digitally connected 21st century business world, young people such as Adam are an invaluable resource that we cannot afford to waste.
By providing a critical conduit between young people and business, FE providers will make invaluable contributions to the country's future economic growth, preparing young people for fulfilling lifetime careers, and providing the fresh talent resource essential for businesses to compete on the global stage.

Liz Field is chief executive of the Financial and Legal Skills Partnership, an employer-led organisation that represents large firm partners on the current skills issues affecting the industry


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