Elnaz Kashefpakdel and Tom Ravenscroft

The transition of young people from education into employment between the ages of 16 and 25 is always a challenging one. The pandemic has once again had a disproportionate impact on young people – both through disruption to education, and the oversized damage to the retail and hospitality industries that often act as a critical bridge for young people into employment.

This has placed further emphasis on essential skills and their critical importance to supporting an effective transition into the world of work – a relevance increasingly echoed by both educators and employers. Beyond employability, an important insight from the lockdown has been that essential skills underpin everything we do on daily basis: in education, training, work and in tackling life’s challenges.

A recent review of evidence 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. There is a wide range of existing evidence pointing towards numerous, overlapping links and interactions between interventions, skills and outcomes.

The evidence also showed a gap in knowledge about how developing essential skills impact on youth employment outcomes such as income and qualifications.

The Skills Builder Framework

At this moment, as broader society increasingly recognises the value of building essential skills for young people, the introduction of the Skills Builder Universal Framework gives us a unique chance to build a greater level of insights into trends around which young people have been able to build their essential skills, their reflections on how they built them, and why they have proved valuable.

The Framework affords us this opportunity, because for the first time it provides a robust, widely used approach to being able to assess essential skills, and to create a score for individuals which can be compared to explore trends and correlations. This score can be created by individual responding to the steps that underpin each skill, and confirming whether this is a descriptor which is accurate for themselves or not.

Skills Builder Partnership commissioned YouGov to conduct a new survey of 3,000 young people aged 16-25 in order to show the impact of essential skills. Using quantitative research methods, the team at Skills Builder found significant relationships between higher skills levels and a significant wage premium once young people are in full time employment as well as higher chances of achieving higher qualifications. This new study also shows how socio-economic factors can influence development opportunities and the role of education and employers in enabling progress throughout.

Finding 1: Social disadvantage plays a significant role

We looked at social disadvantage through two lenses: through whether or not young people recalled receiving free school meals (FSM) during their time in school; and through a social grading scale constructed by YouGov. This analysis found significant differences on both approaches: young people from less advantaged backgrounds showed lower levels of essential skills, using a combined self-reported total skills score.

These findings echo other studies which have highlighted that individuals from more economically disadvantaged backgrounds do not have the same opportunities to build essential skills as their more privileged peers. Studies from both the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission have highlighted that independent schools and wealthier parents seem to put more emphasis on building the essential skills of their children.

This insight has important implications for educators, in that a blanket provision of essential skills activities might be insufficient to address some of the structural barriers to all students mastering essential skills. Akin to the systematic disparities we see around literacy, numeracy and other academic development, the same differences also exist in essential skills and so will need tailored approaches to address them.

There are also some innovative approaches taken by employers to invest more in supporting the development of essential skills (for example, through educational outreach by running workshops in schools and colleges). They are also offering work experience and internships, placements on the new T-Levels, and the Kickstart scheme where there is plenty opportunities to develop skills. They should think about where their investment of resource is likely to have the greatest impact, and this analysis suggests that some criteria to reflect social disadvantage might be worth considering.

Finding 2: Young people want more opportunities to build essential skills in education

There is strong agreement from young people that these skills should be taught through the education system (89%). Many felt that they had those opportunities (67%) although a significant number did not. Where that provision did exist, much of it was through extra-curricular activities, work experience and employer engagement. Only 40% of respondents felt they had had the chance for classroom learning dedicated specifically to these skills.

This is a significant gap, and a deeper exploration of those respondents who said their school had not provided them with the opportunity to build those skills highlights that most attended non-selective state schools or alternative provision settings. These are the same individuals who are most likely to be eligible for FSM, suggesting that those individuals with the greatest need to build these skills further are not getting that opportunity.

This has important implications for educators to ensure that the opportunities to build these essential skills are not seen as an additional benefit for the most advantaged, but as a core part of a good education for all. It also highlights that in cases where schools and colleges are less able to rely on extra-curricular opportunities to build essential skills that they should instead consider making more use of classroom learning time and weaving skills development into other timetabled lessons. This is a dual approach that we have seen pay dividends elsewhere.

Finding 3: Young people need more opportunities to build essential skills in employment

Once in employment, only 46% of young people felt that they had opportunities to regularly build their essential skills, while 45% did not. While young people towards the higher end of the age bracket (up to 25 years-old) reported more opportunities to build their essential skills, only 15% of respondents had regular opportunities for training.

This suggests considerable opportunity for employers to invest more heavily in this area, not least because they are consistently strong advocates for the importance of building these skills. Developments in technology mean that a growing number of companies have been able to make training available on-demand for employees to hone their skills, and this is worth consideration.

Other good practice in this area includes giving regular feedback and coaching for individuals to hone their skills, building the essential skills into performance review and development conversations, and modelling good practice explicitly.

Finding 4: Parental engagement plays a big part

Individuals who reported that their parents or carers were very engaged with their education performed significantly better in respect to their essential skills score against their peers whose parents or carers were less engaged. Only 37% of young people with the lowest level of parental engagement in their education reported a skill score equal or above average while this is 21 percentage points higher for those with very engaged parents or carers (58% reported a skill score equal or above average).

For educators, the role of parental engagement in broader academic development is well recognised. It is also worth engaging parents more around essential skills – something that we are increasingly seeing in schools who are in the Skills Builder Partnership.

We have also seen some employers work with their employees who are parents to boost their understanding and confidence in building their children’s essential skills too.

Finding 5: There is a wage premium for essential skills

This new report demonstrated that there is a wage premium for essential skills of around £3,400 for individuals moving up from the 1st percentile of skills score to the median value (equivalent to a 15% increase). This relationship is particularly strong at lower levels of the skill spectrum.

This wage premium is strongly enhanced where individuals are also confident in applying their essential skills in a range of situations. In this case the increase in skills score from the 1st percentile up to the median is associated with a £10,200 increase in annual income.

These results prove robust to range of checks, and add further weight to the return to building essential skills. They suggest that a purely economic consideration of investing more heavily in building essential skills is likely to be justified by the subsequent wage premium, even if the underlying causal relationship were lower than the correlation relationship identified in this study, which incorporates skills gains during work as well as prior to work.

A call to action from Skills Builder Partnership

This has been a very challenging year for many of us, and many original plans have had to be reviewed and revised in the light of ever-changing circumstances. What has become clear, though, is that the mission of the Partnership is more important than ever. It is clear that for young people, facing huge disruptions to how they learnt and to their wider lives has meant drawing more on skills like Aiming High and Staying Positive. There has also been a loss of traditional opportunities to build essential skills through work experience, internships or business engagement. Out in the job market, the sharp downturn in the economy has made it much harder to find and secure work. Individuals have had to hone their essential skills simply to be able to navigate the world of work, let alone to gain and thrive in a role.

There is now a great urgency in forming a collective force to drive change. Skills Builder Partnership is proud to bring together more than 800 partners to jointly better prepare individuals with the skills they need to navigate through the world where uncertainty is a dominant feature.

The result of this new study only puts greater emphasis on why we should work together throughout education and to employment to ensure that everyone can build the essential skills to succeed.

Elnaz Kashefpakdel, Head of Research and Impact & Tom Ravenscroft, Founder & CEO - Skills Builder Partnership 

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