The CEO of National Grid tackles skills gaps
My key idea:
People are too quick to sit back and blame education for the fact children aren’t leaving school with the skills that industry needs. But how can we expect the education system to know what we need, or young people know where the jobs are, if we don’t engage with them? I believe the answer lies in good-quality careers education that sees businesses working in schools, side-by-side with teachers, engaging and inspiring youngsters to think about their future.
Business, more often than not, is all about supply and demand. Whether you’re in banking, retail or leisure, it’s ultimately about getting people to want the things you have. At National Grid we don’t generate electricity or gas and we don’t supply it to customers, but as system operator we have a role at the heart of the process, balancing the networks and ensuring people have access to safe and sustainable energy when they need it. Supply and demand.
As chair of the Talent and Skills Committee for Business in the Community, and CEO of a FTSE 100 company, the talent pipeline is something I’m greatly concerned about. In the UK, we need 87,000 people annually to meet the needs of the engineering sector, yet only 51,000 are currently joining the profession. Supply is not meeting demand.
Perversely, we have over a million unemployed people aged 18-24. Talent is out there, but we’re not shaping it, moulding it, harnessing it. Research shows that 58% of new jobs created between now and 2017 will require science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills. Yet fewer than 10% of A-level students are studying physics, a critical subject for engineering companies like National Grid. We’re essentially educating our young people out of jobs.
If we are going to address the skills gaps of tomorrow, we need to get involved with education earlier. Ask a room of primary school children what they want to be when they grow up and you’ll hear things like “vet”, “astronaut”, super-hero”. Where does this come from? It comes from the stories they read, the programmes they watch, the people around them. This is why National Grid’s School Power programme works in primary schools, because no age is too young to inspire people into STEM.
I think the key is careers education. We have a role to engage and inspire our young people – and their parents – before they make important educational choices. National Grid, together with businesses such as HS2, Costain and Capgemini, is doing just that through Careers Lab. This careers education programme, which we’re currently piloting with 2,000 children, is designed to start at age 11, long before careers choices are made. Careers Lab is different because the businesses are in the classroom working side-by-side with the teachers. Business ambassadors are sharing their careers journeys and bringing the exciting possibilities in the world of work alive. More importantly, we’re moulding our possible future chief executives and entrepreneurs. We’re actively involved in reducing the skills gap, not standing on the sidelines blaming someone else.
It doesn’t stop there. We need to change the perception of vocational education and help shape those programmes by partnering with colleges and universities or by developing our own programmes. We also need to make sure that talented people aren’t lost to unemployment.
Business in the Community’s Generation Talent initiative asks business to look at its processes and make sure it’s not disadvantaging young unemployed people. Movement to Work, with The Prince’s Trust, provides access to valuable work experience.
And for those who say, “We have no roles for unskilled people or low-educated people in our business,” I offer this challenge: what about your supply chain? What are you doing to encourage those you procure from to tap into the talented pool of people currently looking for work?
Britain’s strength isn’t in its infrastructure, its political structure, or its financial markets. It’s in the people behind those things, delivering the successes. If we’re going to secure its continued growth then we need closer links between business and education.