· Features

Successful employers look beyond university graduates to other, diverse sources of talent

UK businesses frequently bemoan the lack of talent emerging from schools, colleges and universities.

A report by the CBI found that over two thirds of employers ‘were not satisfied with the business and customer awareness of school leavers’. In addition to this, employers are finding it increasingly difficult to differentiate between applicants in an age of increased A-level and degree participation and grade inflation. Employers are resorting to a ‘cut-off’ of a 2:1 degree and 300-plus UCAS points.  While mathematically understandable, it is a very crude process that fails to identify the best talent available, excludes swathes of potential talent and can only lead to a homogenised workforce.  Employers need to build varied teams, with a mix of talented, entrepreneurial, creative personnel alongside colleagues with technical, managerial and customer service expertise. The chances of finding such a blend of skills among a homogenised intake drawn solely from university graduates are slim to non-existent.

At the same time, with A-level results recently released, many school leavers will be left disappointed as competition for university places is rife. This provides businesses with an opportunity engage young people with a broad range of skills who will not know what to do if they don’t get offered a place at University. The advice to ‘take a gap year, go travelling’ is common at the moment, but it is simply postponing the problem. Some forward-thinking businesses are snapping up talented school leavers, putting them on structured programmes such as apprenticeships, and developing their talents to suit their strengths and the business’s needs. Many of these employers will invest considerable time and funds in such development, and the opportunity to undertake a degree at a later point is commonplace. Most business leaders learned their most valuable skills ‘on the job’ and this is exactly what apprenticeships offer: instant skills of instant worth to the employer and employee.

There is a much deeper issue that needs to be addressed though. Apprenticeships shouldn’t just be a short-term option. Youth unemployment is rife and is partly due to schools and colleges not engaging with businesses to ensure that the talent they are producing is in line with business demands. Too many young people are encouraged to go to university with apprenticeships considered a back-up option for the ‘less academically inclined’ and those ‘good with their hands’. This is nonsense. In reality, apprentices need to be as academically capable as they are vocationally talented to be successful. GCSE and A-level grades are not, on their own, a good measure of academic potential.  Many students with lower grades from school are capable of achieving high grades in courses such as National and Higher National Certificates that can form part of an apprenticeship.

University is not suitable for half of the youth population, despite the previous government’s aspirations. Degrees are of tremendous value to the right students in the right subjects but we are doing our industries’ and students’ futures a disservice if we push more and more school leavers into higher education simply to improve the UK’s position in arbitrary league tables and make us feel good about our education system. A truly outstanding education system embraces and promotes a variety of development paths, taking into consideration the current and potential needs of our economy as well as the maturity and learning speeds of its students – not everyone is ready for A levels at 16 or a degree at 18. An important fact that employers, parents and students should understand is that you can progress from an apprenticeship to a degree. You cannot, however, undertake an apprenticeship after graduating.

Employers that buck the trend and draw their talent from a variety of sources will reap the rewards.  They will build a workforce with different skills, thought processes, learning styles and attitudes that arise from their varied development paths.

There have been numerous studies of the earning potential of graduates versus non-graduates and this has been used as a blunt tool to coerce young people into university. When was the last study of the net worth of those two groups to their employers? I suspect the results would be interesting.

Ian Harper is chief executive at ATG Training