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From Luke Johnson to Peter Jones, why top bosses want an education overhaul

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The solution to our youth employment crisis

“The world of work is changing,” says Luke Johnson, serial entrepreneur, former chairman of Channel 4 and saviour of Pizza Express.

“Government and large companies are shedding jobs so more people are starting companies and going freelance. We need students to start considering other career routes such as self-employment.

“It’s not just the students, most educational bodies are public sector therefore the world of full profit businesses and enterprise is alien to them. So we need to engage the private sector to get involved. If leavers aren’t qualified for the world of work, or inspired about what they could create, companies need to go into colleges and try to make sure they are.”

Johnson isn’t blowing hot air, the entrepreneur is putting in the time with local colleges through his involvement with the Gazelle Group. He’s in good company, joined by the likes of Peter Jones and Doug Richard – the group was set up by five college principals to encourage greater interaction between schools and enterprise.

“Our focus is on providing our students with “real” commercial learning opportunities, not just acquiring the skills they need for the workplace, but the knowledge and practical experience of how these are applied in a business environment,” says Cathy Walsh, principal of Barking & Dagenham College.

“The Gazelle Colleges Group believes that the barriers need to be broken down between business and further education, giving employers an active role in developing curricula to ensure that young people are well prepared to be successful, confident and ambitious in the workplace.”

The Gazelle Group is working hard to create work-ready, inspired young graduates and not without good reason. According to figures from the ONS, one in four 21-year-old graduates are unemployed and one fifth of recent graduates are working in lower-skill roles, unrelated to their degrees, such as waitering, clerking and retail.

Meanwhile, employers are struggling to find the talent they need in the current workforce and are talking about massive skills shortages.

“We produce a global skills index which recognises a significant talent skills gap between the skills that employers require and what the current workforce and its visible pipeline is producing,” says Yvonne Smyth, director at Hays, the leading recruiting experts.

“One of our suggestions to effectively tackle this issue is greater incentives for companies to offer training provision. We see apprenticeships as a great way of building strategic and earlier links between employers and colleges in order to bridge the skills gap. Hays itself offers a virtual apprenticeship scheme linked with a number of universities during which students spend their sandwich year working with us. We often keep in touch with these individuals while they return to campus to study for their final year and then invite them to join us again as associates when they graduate. We find that the skills they have already learned with us give them a significant advantage in realising early success over other starters who haven’t had that experience. A lot of organisations have similar schemes.”

The government introduced a scheme in 2008 called ‘higher apprenticeships’ to encourage the youth. These involved students splitting their university years between study and work – earning a wage and experience as well as education. A recent poll by the Department for Business found that employers would rather take on higher apprentices than traditional graduates.

Arup is a global engineering and design consultancy headquartered in London. Jonathan Lock, as associate at the firm, set up its apprenticeship programme around the same time as the government started to push the concept.

“When I joined Arup I was in charge of a large team and I couldn’t find the skill sets I needed within Arup, London or the wider industry. We really needed to fill the gap,” says Lock.

“We found that the introduction of CAD had sped students through the training process missing out a lot of essential skills. The industry itself started to realise, off the back of Crossrail and the need for a large skilled workforce, that we needed to give young people an opportunity. I spoke with my boss and came up with the concept of getting young people in and develop their skills internally. We worked with training facilities like South Thames College to map out their modules and created a better structure in the training process.”

Companies like Arup are certainly not alone. The well-documented skills shortage facing the UK has mobilised the government and businesses to start acting to ensure that we produce a workforce that meets our needs. Many believe that higher apprenticeships are one of the strongest ways to do so. But this will involve changing the mindsets of parents, students and teachers. There is a certain stigma around not going to university and the concept of apprenticeships. “They just aren’t trendy,” adds Lock.

“Higher apprenticeships are a real alternative to full time study and the concept seems to have started to gain real traction this year with clear links between increased employability opportunities and prospects for those with higher apprenticeships,” says Smyth.

“Graduates with real workplace experience are proven to be able to make an accelerated contribution to the workplace. Yet apprenticeships even in skilled and in-demand disciplines still seem to have negative connotations which we need to shake off. This concept needs some good PR behind it. Graduates need to have so much more than just simple degrees now. To differentiate themselves from others, having worked in a business environment, apprentices will have already gained additional skills. We know that, our clients know that. It’s just a matter of altering prevailing opinions.”

The world of work certainly is changing. With it the recruitment environment. Whether we are educating students about their opportunities to set up their own businesses or encouraging them to consider apprenticeships which will boost their skills – we need to challenge the norm. Businesses and entrepreneurs have a part to play in this change. 

You need to read:

Nigel Heap: How to tackle the skills shortages of tomorrow

Everyone is panning James Caan today – but that’s a massive shame

Tim Campbell: We need to get over this obsession with university

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