As you may already have read in the national press last month, a YouGov poll of large employers – commissioned by Pearson – revealed that business leaders believe long-term economic recovery in this country depends more than anything on investment in practical skills.
The clear message from respondents to the poll was that Britain is not adequately equipping its young people to make a real difference to the prosperity of the country by concentrating too heavily on academic qualifications. Some 87% of businesses said future economic growth depends on investment in practical skills and 82% believe students would benefit from learning vocational subjects alongside core academic subjects.
I have written previously in this column that as an industry we are not doing enough to engage with the employers on the benefits of Apprenticeships. David Cameron has called for business to help drive the recovery in Britain and the Skills for Sustainable Growth strategy document released earlier this month backed that, saying:
"...A skilled workforce is necessary to stimulate the private-sector growth that will bring new jobs and new prosperity for people all over this country.
"And a strong further education and skills system is fundamental to social mobility, re-opening routes for people from wherever they begin to succeed in work, become confident through becoming accomplished and to play a full part in civil society."
While pledging government support, that paper also called on employers and citizens to take greater responsibility for ensuring their own skills are met. It is well documented that we this sector need more employers to offer work based learning opportunities. Polls like ours suggest we have an open door to speak to the business community and we should all be taking advantage of that.
However, at the other end of the spectrum is an equally important need to reach out to young people and give them a clear vision of what Apprenticeships can do for them. The Chancellor of the Exchequer mapped out measures in his recent budget that I believe mark a real step change in the way we view our responsibility to prepare young people through a relevant education system to positively impact on the business world.
The school curriculum does not do enough at the moment to prepare Britain's youngsters for a smooth transition into further education or directly into workplace. There seems to be a disparity between the skills schoolchildren are taught and the skills business needs and expects them to possess. Young people need an education that gives them an understanding of the context in which business operates. They also need to leave school with the tools to translate the range of skills and knowledge they have gained throughout their education into a successful career.
Two of the main priorities within government strategy are for Britain to be the best place in Europe to grow a business and to have a more educated workforce that is the most flexible in Europe. As ever, the two aims are inextricably linked and the extent of the challenge we face was highlighted by the Chancellor's admission that Britain's working age population has lower skills than the populations of America, Germany and France.
Mr Osborne called that "the biggest problem facing our economy" and the results of our poll confirm that our business leaders agree with him.
I'm delighted therefore that the government has committed funding to create a further 50,000 apprenticeship places by the end of its current term in 2014, including 10,000 more higher level apprenticeships. That is an extremely positive message to give to businesses and was backed up by the Chancellor's pledge to help small employers to open up Apprenticeship opportunities.
He also announced measures that I believe will better address the core need of the next generation of business people, to map out a realistic and effective progression path for themselves through education and into the workplace.
An additional raft of government funding for 12 new University Technical Colleges is good news. And as part of its increased investment in work placements, the government will work with employer groups such as McDonalds and Hilton Hotels to create up to 100,000 work experience placements for 16-19 year olds. By placing learners in real-life workplace situations, we can only help their decision making process when they make the move from education to workplace. The key thing for me is that these work placements are not wasted opportunities – they need to be relevant to what is being learned and they need to provide real outcomes for the learner.
Pearson's range of qualifications spans the entire educational sphere. Our BTEC First and Workskills qualifications suites can be mapped to that work experience to match the requirements of each individual learner. They are designed to give learners the underpinning knowledge and experience that they need to make the transition from classroom to a workplace setting. In the case of learners who progress through to work based learning, our qualifications also contribute towards components of an Apprenticeship, providing the tangible, joined-up approach to vocational education that I believe the government is trying to implement.
Progression is easier for people in an environment with which they are familiar and this approach creates the opportunity for a young person to leave school and embark on an Apprenticeship, safe in the knowledge that they have already completed important elements of their next qualification and that they have been properly prepared for the next step.
Of course, if we can effectively gain buy-in to the Apprenticeship framework from a greater number of young learners at an early age, and then provide them with a consistent, results driven educational path, we will inevitably deliver a larger number of fully-qualified people into the workplace who are able to demonstrate immediate real business impact.
What better way could there be to convince more of Britain's employers to commit long-term investment to an Apprenticeship programme?
Trevor Luker is managing director of Pearson Work Based Learning
Read other FE News articles by Trevor Luker