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Inspiring young people to achieve in the future

What do you want to do when you leave school?' This is a question that is guaranteed to strike dread into the heart of most teenagers. But for 14 year-old Paul the answer was easy: "I want to be in a band."

Today, in the age of The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent, there are lots of youngsters who dream of overnight stardom and unquantifiable wealth. But in 1956, when Paul was trying to persuade his dad, Jim, to buy him a guitar, being in a band meant a life of hard graft and financial hardship. Jim knew this all too well, because although he had spent most of his career in the cotton trade, he had also led a jazz band in the 1920s.

However, Jim could see that his son had been inspired - inspired by Lonnie Donegan, the Glaswegian king of skiffle whom Paul had seen performing at the Liverpool Empire.

At this point, there are few readers who will not have realised that just a year later Paul McCartney would meet fellow Donegan devotee John Lennon to begin a whole new chapter in musical history.

It is a well-known story, but what I find remarkable about it is the pivotal role played by a performer who is best remembered - and then only by those of us with long memories - for My Old Man's a Dustman and Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (on the Bedpost Overnight?)

But what Donegan had created with these simple songs was exciting, vibrant music that young people could aspire to achieve for themselves. As George Harrison commented: "Lonnie and skiffle seemed made for me ... it was easy music to play if you knew two or three chords, and you would have a tea-chest as a bass and washboard and you were on your way."

All of this raises the question: what would have happened to the Beatles in a world without Lonnie Donegan? If a teenage McCartney hadn't been inspired to be in a band, would he have followed his father into the cotton trade? If a teenage Lennon hadn't been inspired to pick up a guitar, might he have ended up as what we call a NEET (not in education, employment or training)? After all, he had left school with no qualifications, and a report that concluded that he was 'certainly on the road to failure'.

It is a sobering thought and, at a time when in the UK nearly one in five 18-year-old boys and one in six girls are NEETs, university places are being squeezed and one in five graduates are unemployed, it is one that is on the minds of employers across the country. They increasingly realise there are three clear ways in which they can help accelerate economic recovery and, in the process, create a brighter future for the next generation.

First, create employment, in particular private-sector jobs at a time when government austerity measures are resulting in public sector job losses. Second, enhance employability by working together with schools and colleges, investing in work experience schemes and aligning training to recognised qualifications.

Finally, be inspirational - making an emotional connection with young people in a way that ignites their passion about the workplace in the same way Donegan ignited the passion of a generation of musicians.

I was inspired to write this article by an email I received from the organisers of a series of interactive skills and careers events for 14-19-year-olds that will be taking place across the UK throughout 2011. The headline for the events? Get Inspired!

I hope that call to action inspires you too, because whether your organisation is big or small, private or public, hiring or downsizing, I believe that each of us has the capacity (and, indeed, the responsibility) to reach out to young people and inspire them about what they might achieve in the future.