Dr Elnaz Kashefpakdel, Head of Research and Impact, Skills Builder Partnership

The rising challenges of life after the pandemic 

Talk about automation and technological disruptions feels overshadowed. We now have a more immediate challenge to tackle: rising youth unemployment from the global pandemic. According to Impetus, young people are being worst hit by the crisis in the jobs market. The most recent labour market statistics show that youth unemployment is likely to follow the trends of previous recessions, meaning the number of young people not working or in education could increase by 50%, reaching a total of 1.1 million.

The impact of the pandemic has particularly affected retail and hospitality, which were important vehicles to get young people onto the career ladder, helping them gain the work experience they need to develop skills and progress in their careers. Workers aged 25 and under are three times more likely to work in one of the two sectors where jobs are at greatest risk.

Precarious employment conditions and early experiences of unemployment bring with them long-term scarring effects, affecting future job prospects, health and well-being. Young people who experience long-term unemployment are more likely to be employed in semi-skilled and unskilled occupations when they do re-enter the labour market. They are likely to suffer a negative impact on earnings over the duration of their working life. 

The impact on education

On the other hand, education disruptions caused by the pandemic have resulted in lost learning time - especially for the most disadvantaged young people. When individuals lose out on education, there are long-term effects on earnings, with far-reaching consequences. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has published the most detailed analysis to date of the likely impact of school closures on the attainment gap. It concludes that school closures as a result of Covid-19 will likely reverse the progress made in narrowing the attainment gap since 2011.

The ongoing crisis and mitigation measures also have implications for social and emotional wellbeing. Prolonged social isolation and the stress caused by uncertainty are expected to increase incidences of young people with mental health problems. During the lockdown, the life experiences of children and young people changed substantially, including increased economic and social pressures on their families. With so much change, it may be difficult to look beyond the day-to-day and not feel overwhelmed.

A critical agenda for change

The pandemic will have an unpredictable impact on individuals and we need to discuss how we can prepare ourselves for a new and uncertain world.

The lockdown, and its impact on individual lives, has presented us an opportunity to think hard about the ways we should support young people to transition into secure employment. How can we put in place the structural support and investment we need to improve life outcomes for individuals at different life stages? The evidence has emerged from multiple research studies that young people, teachers and parents strongly agree that now is the time to invest more in building essential skills such as problem solving, leadership and teamwork. To build back better we need these skills which underpin employability to support young people to switch sectors as economy recovers.

Teachers now think workplace skills have a higher value than academic qualifications in preparing school and college leavers for the post-Covid world of work. According to a survey by Teacher Tapp for the Careers and Enterprise Company almost three-quarters of teachers say skills like teamwork and public speaking will equip pupils to secure a good job in these uncertain economic times. Just 62% say the same about good academic qualifications. The poll also asked those 5,000 teachers what they thought would best prepare students for the post-pandemic jobs market. Almost half (49%) said they fear there will be far fewer jobs and opportunities for their students in the coming years. Worryingly 98% of teachers said their students have been anxious and uncertain about their future choices since lockdown.

According to other research, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on parents’ and teachers’ attitudes towards education. In a survey by YouGov for the Edge Foundation, more than 1,000 parents and 500 teachers from across the UK were asked about how their attitudes had changed as a result of the pandemic. Two thirds of parents (66%) agreed that teaching and education in the future need to change following the pandemic. More than nine in ten parents (92%) said they want education to help their children develop a range of skills like critical thinking, creative problem solving and communication. Nearly all (96%) teachers surveyed agreed that they wanted their pupils to develop a range of skills.

Young people agree too. The results of a YouGov poll of 3,016 young adults for Skills Builder Partnership shows that 91% of young adults aged 16-25 in the UK believe essential skills are important for employment opportunities, successful recruitment process and overcoming difficulty and adversity at different life stages. 84% of young people aged 16-25 agree that essential skills should be taught in lessons at schools or college. The full analysis will be presented in a forthcoming paper.

Employers have continuously told us that graduates are lacking the skills they’d prioritise over qualifications and that more needs to be done to improve them.

Essential skills beyond employability

Beyond employability, one of the critical learnings from the lockdown has been that these are the very skills that underpin everything we do on daily basis; in education, in training, in work and in tackling challenges that life throws at us during the tough times like this.

A new review of evidence by the Centre for Education and Youth for Skills Builder Partnership, shows that essential skills such as teamwork and creativity are associated with better life outcomes including not just employment, but also education and wider social and well-being outcomes. The rapid evidence review looked at more than 60 academic studies, using robust methodologies, to examine the extent to which essential skills impact on outcomes for children and young people, during school and beyond. There is a wide range of existing evidence pointing towards numerous, overlapping links and interactions between interventions, skills and outcomes. For instance, skills such as speaking and listening, support academic attainment and professional competency. There is also evidence that teaching and developing these skills could support young people’s social and emotional wellbeing, through improved social self-management.

Robust studies included in this review demonstrates that having essential skills, and their development through interventions, can be substantially beneficial for children and young people in terms of their educational, employment and social and emotional outcomes.

We are in this together

There seems to be a consensus that children, young people and adults need more than good qualifications: building the essential skills we need to succeed and thrive is equally important.

However, the lack of a common language to describe these skills could cause problems when trying to design education programmes. Additionally, educators, labour market researchers and employers often do not speak the same language.

We need to have a common approach in teaching essential skills or embedding them in our practice. Only this will allow us to embed the essential skills into the curriculum and provide teachers, facilitators, employers and other programme providers with the resources and training they need to support individuals in developing these skills. While many programmes have been initiated to develop the skills we need for a more employable and future ready workforce, without cross-sector partnership and system change it will be challenging to prioritise this.

A shared approach to building essential skills

Building this shared approach is at the heart of the Skills Builder Partnership. We bring together more than 800 organisations including educators, employers and impact organisations around a shared goal: ensuring that one day, everyone builds the essential skills to thrive.

We all use the Skills Builder Universal Framework to define what we mean by those essential skills, focusing on eight: teamwork, leadership, problem solving, creativity, speaking, listening, aiming high and staying positive. This common language and shared outcomes is critical for aligning and focusing our collective efforts to build these skills.

The Framework is backed by CIPD, the CBI, the Gatsby Foundation, Business in the Community, and the Careers & Enterprise Company among many others.

The Framework takes each of the eight essential skills, and breaks them down into 16 sequential steps which span from being an absolute beginner in the skills, to achieving a high level of mastery. It acts as a reflection tool for reviewing an individual’s current skillset and as a roadmap for further development.

In addition to the Framework, over the last ten years the Skills Builder Partnership has honed a set of Principles, which reflect best practice in building these skills:

  • Keep it simple: Using a consistent language, and focusing on tangible steps.
  • Start early, keep going: Working with individuals at stages of education and careers.
  • Measure it: Understanding existing skills strengths and development areas.
  • Focus tightly: Building essential skills explicitly and deliberately.
  • Keep practising: Apply the skills in lots of settings and reflect on their use.
  • Bring it to life: Link the essential skills to different elements of working life.

If the Framework provides the ‘what’, these Principles provide the ‘how’ of building essential skills.

A better system is possible

We have seen through our work at Skills Builder Partnership that it is possible for every child and young person to build the essential skills that will support them through the rest of their lives.

The global pandemic has concentrated minds on the importance of ensuring that these essential skills become the norm for everyone – and we have seen that such an approach would have widespread support.

Creating system-level change will require close collaboration between policymakers, educators and private sector leaders, nationally and internationally, who will need to connect and scale those efforts to create holistic education and employment systems.

Together we can build back better.

By Dr Elnaz Kashefpakdel, Head of Research and Impact, Skills Builder Partnership

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