Skills to Pay the Bills

Late August always seems to bring education angst to the chattering classes. A-level and GCSE results always raise the questions:

  • Are exams too easy?
  • Are students studying too many ‘soft’ subjects?

Then we get the inevitable

  • The education system isn’t providing the future workforce with the skills they need
  • Why do so many need to go to university, why don’t they go straight into work

This year I had more than a passing interest in the annual kvetching– my son got his GCSE results and is studying a couple of ‘soft subjects’ for A levels.

I certainly don’t think that the exams are getting easier and find the comparisons of results before the merging of O Levels and CSEs into GCSEs with those since pointless. Results are now partly based on coursework and controlled assessments…surely a much better was to assess someone’s grasp of a subject and work ethic than relying solely on a three hour cram-a-thon jumble of facts and figures shorn of much context and relevance.

The shift from quota based marking to criteria based…away from having set numbers achieving each grade to recognising the attainment of a level of achievement…has also clearly helped to create the impression that grades are more easily achieved.

So what of the soft subjects? Well Drama has given my son confidence, an ability to express and project himself, and experience of teamwork – many of the things supposedly lacking in today’s workforce. Additionally he has had the opportunity to be part of a group creating a production from scratch, which was assessed as a whole, with each group member getting the same grade. Real project experience with teamwork and interdependency…great experience for the workplace.

And RP (Religious Philosophy)? Well, a quick look at the BBCs GCSE revision help notes for the subject gives us the headings – God, death, human relationships, poverty & wealth, prejudice & discrimination, religion science & the environment, sanctity of life and war & peace. Some fairly weighty topics, before you add in the customs and values of different religions and cultures.

Seems to me that they are very good subjects for a modern teen to have an understanding of…for life and the workplace.

Both are subjects that he’s doing at A Level. Now I’m sure that members of the CBI would wring their hands in anxiety at the thought of the next generation of workers coming in to the workplace with the skills and knowledge that I’ve outlined above. But why? In a modern, evolving global knowledge economy with the accent on the individual, on relevance and creativity, why are the skills and knowledge gained from drama and RP less relevant than maths and chemistry? How many jobs are there for scientists and how many jobs within the dominant service sector for people with less analytical skills?

And how about the much maligned Sports Studies? Looking at the standard PE revision syllabus we get performance (leadership, analysis & feedback), anatomy & physiology (the body, its systems and physical activity), exercise and training (health and fitness), factors affecting performance (nutrition, hygiene, drugs, age, motivation & technology), factors affecting participation (social issues, leisure time, facilities, sponsorship and the media).

All very relevant knowledge for today’s and tomorrow’s workforce, in which the effects of obesity, nutrition, drugs and technology – to name a few – will loom large on our economy and workforce.

Guess what – you don’t get an A* in PE for knowing the offside law…any more than you get an A* in Photography for a couple of interesting instagram snaps.

There is no reason to assume that the standard of skill and ability required to gain a top grade in a subject such as Photography or Drama is easier to reach than a fact/essay based subject. Indeed the skills honed studying these other subjects may well be of great use as we shift further from the post-industrial business structure to newer organisations and working practices.

As my friend and colleague Felix Wetzel wrote – The Unskilled of Today are the Skilled of Tomorrow.

And there’s an extra bonus. In my son’s school they did away with traditional homework four years ago in favour of independent study. No homework is set; it is left to the pupils to do whatever study is needed in their own time. They got some input from the school at the beginning on how to go about it, but then it’s up to them. Parents have been concerned – if you leave the kids to their own devices will they do the necessary work? Early signs are that this year’s results are very strong…seems that even without the structure of homework they are able to work out for themselves what they need to do!

More attitudes that I would have thought would be useful to employers.

There seems to be an assumption that the purpose of education is to create a future workforce. Company leaders are forever decrying the lack of basic knowledge in today’s young workers – it doesn’t seem to me that ‘soft’ subjects are to blame.

I’ll throw down a challenge now to any industry leader. My son will enter the workforce in 5 years’ time…tell him now what skills he’ll need for you then?

Bet you no-one can. Any more than in 2006 an industry leader would have been able to predict this summer’s employment situation or perceived skills gap.

Part short termism and part lack of investment in training, many of today’s businesses seem to want to hire people already trained rather than find potential and train them internally.

Clearly we need to define ‘skill’. What is it that companies want? If it’s the case that there just aren’t enough entry level or junior roles (whether through outsourcing, restructuring or technology) then surely we need to re-define expectations on both sides.

Basic common sense is there, an ability to take responsibility and a desire to achieve high standards is there…and there is also a much stronger sense of teamwork.

As Kevin Wheeler wrote in his excellent blog Plays Well With Others

‘schools have done a better job recently of producing people who really do play well with others. From elementary school through university, classroom work and assignments are group oriented. Gen Y – those in their twenties – have grown up in a collaborative, group oriented world. They sit in groups, work in teams, and get rewarded as team players’

How about universities?

I’m not going to enter the debate over whether or not so many students should go to university, but look at the messages sent out to them.

During my years as a recruiter I was always asked for graduates – even for telesales roles. There has been a belief with most of the hiring managers that I have ever met that a degree shows a level of attainment, it signifies independence, an ability to look for information and put it to use, a discipline to meet deadlines…those aren’t my views, just a list of the most popular reasons given to me for favouring graduates.

And in my experience businesses do favour graduates…even when looking for experienced workers.

Recently there was a long piece in the Sunday Times – I can’t link to it as it’s behind paywall – under the headline ‘Top Firms dangle Carrot before School Leavers’.

It seems ‘leading companies’ that ‘usually hire a large number of graduates’ are trying to ensure that they don’t miss out on ‘high flyers who shun going to university’. PWC are leading the way…they are one of the biggest hirers of graduates in the services sector so it would seem right that they do so.

They are writing to 5,000 schools to let them know about their A Level entrance option and have 100 places for the brightest A Level students. How many graduates are they hiring? 1,200. So of an intake of 1,300 there are 100 places for non-grads.

A total of 7.7%!

So if you’re in the 50% who leave school without going to university you can scramble for 7.7% of PWCs trainee places whereas if you’re in the other 50% who do go to uni then you can scramble for 92.3% of PWCs positions.

A carrot?? A crumb more like.

But wait. There’s some ‘good news’ in a survey from Santander! When asked the question ‘If you had to choose between two candidates – an A Level student with 3 years’ work experience and a raw graduate with no work experience – which would be your INSTINCT to hire’ 80% of companies said the A Level student.

No sh*t! You’ve got a role, no doubt at a trainee’s salary’ and for the same price you can get someone with 3 years’ work experience. Would be mad not to take them.

Except the word used was ‘INSTINCT’. No guarantees, just the gut feel that someone with 3 years’ work experience is preferable to a raw trainee (with 3 years’ university). Interesting to know why they didn’t just ask which one they DO hire.

Which is probably why, when asked the next survey question ‘Does not having a degree on a CV make you more or less likely to CONSIDER that person’ there is an underwhelming 8% who say more likely.

Funny that, because 8% is roughly the proportion of places that businesses like PWC appear to offer to school leavers.

And if you look at the survey question before – ‘How do people joining your business as school-leavers without a degree progress’ – the number of respondents who say that they progress further than graduates is…9%.

Looks like there’s a theme here – soft subjects or not, there’s an attitude shift needed in business.



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