When the likes of Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco and Sir Stuart Rose of M&S speak about the quality of people entering employment, we should listen.
Unemployment among young people is rising, the economy has faltered and these two business leaders have been part a chorus of concern about the fact that young people leaving full-time education lack the qualities they are looking for. Qualities including a grasp of literacy and numeracy, and an appreciation of the world of work.
Literacy and numeracy are something which should be taught at school or college but you can only get a full understanding of the world of work by being there – in the work place. Qualifications, while important, are not a substitute for experience. Of course most people understand this, which is why young people routinely seek out work experience opportunities in order to increase their employability – to give themselves the edge against those who leave education and training with only qualifications to offer.
Yet the quality of work experience is highly variable. So if we are to encourage more young people to spend time in the "real world", and if we are to guarantee that they genuinely benefit from doing so, how do we ensure that work experience really counts? It's time to ensure that good quality work experience gets the recognition it really deserves.
At the same time, to encourage the provision of work experience placements which are purposeful, challenging and rewarding. Which is why I would like to make a proposition – that we introduce a system of accreditation which both encourages employers to ensure the experience is meaningful and enables young people to improve their prospects significantly by taking part in the right placement.
So let's establish a properly accredited work experience system which will benefit young people, employers and the future workforce of this country and recognise those employers that are taking work experience seriously.
The value of good work experience is already proven. According to research I've seen, on average, a young person with relevant work experience will have a starting salary over £1,000 per annum higher than one without – as well as a better chance of getting the job in the first place.
Many employers are seeking to make connections with schools and colleges to increase the number of placements. This is encouraging, but we must improve the quality as well as the quantity.
I have heard of some genuinely inspiring opportunities young people have been given and which have changed their lives forever. I have also heard of too many experiences which seem to consist of large amounts of photocopying, interrupted only by trips to the coffee machine or the canteen to bring refreshments back to colleagues.
We need to have a consistently high-quality work experience system, where purposeful learning is prioritised. A system which delivers for young people and employers and which recognises those organisations which make the quality of their work experience placements a priority.
An accredited work experience programme ensures that we are able to work with employers to set standards, monitor the benefits and encourage our young people to gain vital knowledge of the skills they will need to succeed in the future. The participating employer receives an accreditation and recognition for the quality of their work; the young person, a certificate of achievement.
Sounds complicated? It needn't be. With employers in the driving seat, it won't be. I am privileged to have enjoyed a career in both the private and public sectors and I have always recognised the virtuous circle between skills and productivity, and how this can enhance the well-being of businesses, individuals and society at large.
So to employers, I would urge their commitment to making work experience count. To Government, I would urge a new sense of urgency in responding to the concerns of our business leaders about the quality of our future workforce.
Chris Banks is former Chair of the Learning and Skills Council and founder of Big Thoughts www.bigthoughts.co.uk