From education to employment

Work-related learning – a language lost in translation

Stephen Carrick-Davies, a presenter at this week’s Youth Employment Convention, explains how the Facework project is helping young people understand what the world of work is really like.

Last week a young person told me his boss was a bully. “He kept getting on my back, telling me I was late and making me do things” he explained. “Were you late?” I asked. “Yeah sometimes.” I listened and then asked sensitively, “So does that make him a bully? Isn’t that what bosses are supposed to do?” There was an awkward silence.

Most good employers realise that they have to “recruit for attitude but train for skill.” However, I would argue that good employers today have to “re-boot” attitude and also help young people discover their skills. You see, there seems to be a growing disconnect between young people’s dreams and aspirations of a successful career, best epitomised with the desire of many to “just become famous!” and the harsh reality of needing to get a job, any job even if the boss is so bossy they are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a bully.

The National Careers Council report ‘Aspirational Nation’ reflects on this mismatch between career aspirations and the reality of jobs on the market, stating that young people need to be far more resilient to face the challenges and uncertainties of the current labour market and that they need better career management and digital literacy skills to achieve sustained employability.

Employers are becoming key in this ‘bridging’ in part because many schools are unable to provide this career management advice. Since September 2012 schools have been legally responsible for providing independent and impartial career guidance, but as the recent Ofsted report noted, they “must do better!” And all this against the backdrop that increasing numbers of young people come from homes where there are poor perceptions of work, where parents – if they are working at all – are in low paid, exhausting and unrewarding jobs, many on zero-hour contracts, and living on a tightrope between earning a salary and claiming working tax credits. Is it any wonder that many marginalised young people are excluded not just from work, but from the language and culture of work?

The Facework project being developed by the Inclusion Trust is seeking to develop a radical new approach to work-related learning especially for organisations working with marginalised young people. We’ve undertaken surveys, run focus groups with students and, with funding from Nominet Trust, are now working with these young people and staff in co-authoring new digital work-related learning resources. However, long before any website is launched we’ve identified three crucial challenges which need examining.

Firstly, ‘soft’, unquantifiable skills are as important to validate as ‘hard’-measurable skills.

All young people need opportunities to show they have skills and unique qualities. For most children these are nurtured informally in the home. But for others growing up with an absence of supportive adults in their lives and who have been constantly told that they are a failure, it’s especially vital. Many of the young people I work with have extraordinary skills and gifts, but they have become so hard-wired to the negative battery terminal of life that they can’t feel the positive or accept praise. They shy away from areas and environments which amplify shame or public failure, including an education system which is predicated on achievement and reward for success. They are masters of protecting themselves from failing yet again, even if this involves blaming others.

The more our education sector prioritises qualifications and league tables, over and above programmes which help inspire and build young people’s character, resilience, self-esteem, empathy and wellbeing, the more we as a society will judge people on what they earn, not on what they are worth.

Schools must do more to help young people understand the soft skills and attitudes that employers want; skills such as self-management and accepting responsibility, team-working and initiative, customer awareness, problem-solving and working under pressure, good communication skills. The irony is that young people are demonstrating and celebrating these skills informally via social media every day, but schools must do more to embed these skills and attitudes. When did you last hear a teacher say “Today’s lesson is on how to keep a customer happy when the cappuccino machine has broken?”

The second challenge is recognising that for many marginalised young learners the most effective learning takes place outside of the classroom.

If work is a rite of passage to citizenship, then surely we should allow those who provide that passage to take more responsibility in shaping and if necessary “re-booting” young people’s attitudes to work. This is especially important for vulnerable and marginalised young people where even alternative schools like Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) are, I believe, the wrong place for them to learn. Employers can do things which schools can’t. We need employers who will commit to young people who struggle to be taught, showing them that through example and good mentoring, attitudes can be caught.

Most people can still remember the feeling of receiving their first wage packet: We must never underestimate this emotional learning currency for a young person. Teachers already know that when you get lost in what you love doing and are rewarded for it, you forget that you are learning.

The third main challenge is understanding that helping a young person get a job has to first involve helping them how to develop good relationships.

It’s easy for employers to criticise young people and argue that they don’t have the skills they need in the workplace because they can’t communicate. However it is our failure too. Very few of us employers properly understand and empathise with those young people who have had to overcome trauma and abusive home environments. We don’t know their language, they don’t know ours, and currently our education system is lost in its role as translator.

As we have developed the Facework project we believe that young people need at least 40 in-depth conversations with people in work to really understand what work is like. Small employers have a vital role to play; they are the ones creating the new jobs, they have greater flexibility and are embedded within communities. Like all of us, they know all about the importance of economic growth, but in supporting young people they witness first-hand social growth; that is learning worth recognising, that is change worth celebrating.

Stephen Carrick-Davies is a freelance trainer, employer and Social Entrepreneur and is currently working with The Inclusion Trust on pioneering the Facework project

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