Business leaders have been saying for years that they struggle to find enough staff with the right practical skills. Industry experts say there aren't enough highly-skilled workers and so, for example, businesses in the engineering sector can't find enough people with higher level skills in subjects relevant to engineering, including English and maths. But when it comes to young people – particularly 16 to 18-year-olds – we're told that they lack a completely different type of skills. They may be learning through a qualification but they lack the important soft skills such as problem solving and adaptability to changes in the working environment.
Soft skills can be taught; every year thousands of young people leave college clutching their qualification certificates, but they have also gained skills in communication, teamwork and leadership. These have been built up through their experiences at college and are crucial to both individual and business success.
With soft skills worth £88 billion to UK plc, they will become ever more important in an increasingly competitive global economy.
Since January 2015, the Association of Colleges has been part of a working group with McDonalds plc, CBI, National Youth Agency and entrepreneur James Caan among others to look at how the importance of soft skills can be better recognised. In fact, the group has recommended the creation of a formal soft skills framework for schools, employers and employees so that people at all life stages can understand, develop and express the soft skills they need for the next stage in their career.
New research published in June demonstrates that developing soft skills can boost an individual's lifetime earnings by up to almost 15%. This shows why they are so important.
Colleges are ideally placed to help students develop these employment ready skills. Not only does technical and professional education prepare young people with practical skills, there are also opportunities for them to work as part of a team, whilst practicing good timekeeping and self-reliance. Colleges create a stepping stone between school and the independent world of work.
Colleges excel at working closely with local and national employers, so they are able to provide students with the skills they need for specific job roles. In addition, and based on direct feedback from employers, colleges help students develop the skills they need to succeed in a workplace.
Students learning app design in the Samsung Digital Academy at Newham College of Further Education, for example, work directly with local businesses, attending meetings with employers to discuss what the employer needs from them and to present the final finished product. This means dressing professionally to look the part and speaking clearly and competently. At Somerset College, students in the media make-up department attend national trade fairs to help them develop networking skills which they will need once they're working in that industry.
So, it's not just about team working and time-keeping, it's also about confidence - the confidence to stand up in front of a room of people, the confidence to walk up to someone at a trade fair, introduce yourself and find out the information you need from them.
At a time when the Government is pushing apprenticeships, soft skills become even more important. A 16 to 18-year-old may not be ready, straight out of school, to embark on an apprenticeship which is a job first and foremost, with training alongside. The Government needs to create a robust pre-apprenticeship programme so that young people gain the all-important soft skills they need to take up their place in the workforce.
Young people need soft skills as much as employers need enthusiastic, well-skilled employees who are comfortable in the workplace. Let's help young people to develop these skills so they can compete with the best and secure that all important first step on the career ladder.
Richard Atkins is president of the Association of Colleges (AoC)