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Lord Jim Knight: The talent gap and the role of employers

Lord Jim KnightBy Lord Jim Knight, former cabinet Minister and Chief Education and External Officer at TES

What happens when you get a diverse group of employers around a dinner in the House of Lords and have a conversation that starts with their huge problems in finding talent, and ends with how they might do more in schools?

At the end of June I set out to answer that question thanks to EVERFI, who focuses on bridging that gap between employer expertise and classroom learning. With the hospitality of Lord McNicol and the expertise of Tim Campbell MBE, we were joined by a wide range of employers, including Amazon Web Services, Anglian Water, and Boohoo.

There is no doubt in my mind that careers education has been recognised as a problem for some time. Despite the best efforts of a dwindling number of careers professionals, Government initiatives continue to struggle. From Connexions through to some great current organisations like the Careers Enterprise Company, Founders4Schools, and Speakers for Schools, careers education still feels like just another task for schools to get done. Work experience is, too often, a compliance problem, not an opportunity.

When employers are hungry for talent, why is that?

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Much of the problem lies in the culture of schooling. When the whole system is configured around academic attainment, a vocational strand is always second best. Where schools have been set up to counteract this, as in the University Technical Colleges, it is significantly better, but even there the school system works against their starting age of 14.

Some around the dinner table were arguing for more careers learning in Primary. How else do we help children understand that, if they want to work in health, there are a huge range of roles beyond doctors and nurses? Similarly, you can work in fashion as a data analyst or a digital marketer. Employers are desperate to break down the stereotypes in STEM careers and beyond.

The answer is surely to do more with organisations like EVERFI, who develop content for teachers that brings the real world of work into the classroom. This might happen by using real-life scenarios from business, or having employees from businesses visit schools, to help explain how what students are learning is used in a real-life context, and why it is important. This can then be enhanced with workplace visits, both real and in virtual reality. By moving away from a one-hit careers intervention to something that is multi-touchpoint, throughout a school career, we stand more chance of engaging young people and really maximising their potential as the workforce of the future.

‘Business leaders are now waking up to the need for more diversity to improve their decision-making. Any long-term strategy to bring in more people from disadvantaged backgrounds will have to involve giving time and resources to education.’

More experiential learning can also add to attempts to break down problems of aspiration. Too often, schools’ work on building aspiration remains focussed on getting a place at a great university. Many employers are hiring younger and cutting out graduate recruitment – a place on a Rolls Royce degree apprenticeship course is more sought after than a place at Oxford.

There was also much discussion about the importance of young people developing soft skills in order to cope with the challenges life and work may throw at them. This is a subject close to EVERFI’s heart, as it delivers not only curriculum learning in a context that references the needs of employers and the workplace, but also works with teachers to build holistic skills that young people need to be successful beyond the curriculum, like resilience and mental wellbeing, which enable young people to thrive.

Perhaps, if we dedicated more time to listen to and empower young people while they are at school, we would connect better to their passions and potential. Is the aspiration problem as much in the expectations of their parents and teachers? Is that where we could focus more effort, especially in the levelling communities that need to hang on to talented young people, rather than just sending them off to university, never to return?

None of this lets employers off the hook. We ask a lot of them in offering work experience, T-Level placements, apprenticeship roles, and so on. For too many at boardroom level, though, talent recruitment is a short-term problem, not a long-term strategy.

Business leaders are now waking up to the need for more diversity to improve their decision-making. That diversity should be more about background than anything, and any long-term strategy to bring in more people from disadvantaged backgrounds will have to involve giving time and resources to education.

Perhaps that needs another dinner!