The Institution for Engineering and Technology just published the findings from its employers survey on skills and training in the engineering and technology sector. The headline result is somewhat unremarkable: employers feel new recruits lack the necessary skills to fulfil their responsibilities. But what is surprising is that a ‘large minority’ of these same employers do little to improve the education system their recruits emerge from. Although engagement has increased in recent years, some 40 per cent of the industry’s employers still have no interactions with schools, and as many as 1 in 10 do nothing whatsoever with an educational body.
This is not unique to the manufacturing sector. Work experience – the most common form of employer engagement with schools – is widely criticised as a superficial exercise across the spectrum of different industries and regions. Rarely does it give young people an adequate understanding of what the world of work truly looks like. According to a survey undertaken by the Young Foundation, close to 1 in 3 young people cite a lack of work experience as a key barrier to employment. Other research by Demos echoes the same sentiments. Their study of young people highlights a dearth of practical learning in schools, with work experience programmes found to be geared around menial tasks and organised primarily for the purposes of box ticking.
Much of the problem no doubt lies with schools. Indeed, we know from our own research that active employers who want to interact with young people often face resistance from head teachers, governors and teaching staff alike. Yet in many cases employers are pushing at an open door. Here, the issue is less one of willing schools but willing employers. Polling by YouGov has found that two thirds of teachers feel there it too little employer engagement in their school. Whether it’s providing work experience opportunities to school students, offering up fair internships to university undergraduates, or running good quality show and tell presentations within FE colleges, companies that truly want to collaborate with schools to nurture bright, capable and work-ready young people are too few in number.
Yet it is not just the quantity but also the type of employers going into schools that is problematic. The same polling by YouGov found that public sector organisations are far more likely to be involved with schools than those in the private sector (93 per cent to 53 per cent of organisations in these sectors respectively). Imbalances are also visible when we view engagement by employer size. Whereas 8 in 10 large employers currently work within schools, this applies to less than half of SMEs and under a third of microbusinesses. This is concerning, not least because SMEs are where the vast majority of most unemployed people find new jobs (contrary to popular belief).
It is of course not hard to sympathise with employers who say they lack the time to engage with schools – particularly SMEs and microbusinesses that have plenty of other demands on their time. But you cannot at one and the same time bemoan the lack of a skilled workforce and do nothing to improve the education system from which young people emerge. The notion that education ends at the school gates has long been viewed as obsolete by educators. Isn't it time more employers recognised that as well?
Benedict Dellot is a Senior Researcher within the RSA's Enterprise team. You can follow him @Benedictdel