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Employers want ambition: we’ve got it!

Dr Neil Bentley-Gockmann OBE, Chief Executive, WorldSkills UK

Friday, 15 Mar 2019

It was an honour to be part of the apprenticeship week celebrations that were taking place across the UK at the beginning of this month. To also have the selection events for Team UK taking place in each of the four nations throughout the week really contributed to an occasion that, to my mind, brought out the best of British. For the apprentices and students that have now booked their place on the plane to the Skills Olympics in Kazan this summer, last week will be an unforgettable experience. And the reason it’s so important that we celebrate all things young people and skills, with events like apprenticeship weeks, was highlighted by recent Sutton Trust research.

This painted a familiar picture: parents more likely to advise their children to take a degree than an apprenticeship. We shouldn’t be surprised by this familiarity: it reflects over 50 years of education system design overseen by all UK governments that have placed the university route as the preferable option. Parents only want their children to have the best start in life, so it is understandable that degrees continue to resonate with their ambitions in the way they do. In this context, the Sutton Trust research is an important reminder of the perception gap that persists and the need for events like apprenticeship weeks. Whilst the views of parents have a vital role to play in shaping young people’s futures, there is another group we need to bear equally in mind: employers.

When looking at the reasons for parents prioritising degrees over apprenticeships, the Sutton Trust survey suggests that career prospects (68%) loom largest. Given that careers are to a large extent determined and shaped by employers, isn’t it also sensible to ask what their views are? At WorldSkills UK we are shortly going to be launching the results of our own research that asked over 300 employers their views on the world of work today. The initial findings seem to highlight a gap between what parents and employers think. According to our results, only 3% of employers think a university degree is the most important attribute for setting young people up for future careers. Instead, they rank inter-personal skills (72%) and having lots of ambition (68%) as the chief determinants of a young person’s journey through work and life. This matters as we know that the workplaces of the 2020s and 2030s are going to be very different to the workplaces of the past 50 years. Young people who are able to demonstrate the skills that employers want from day one of a new job are going to get that head start that sets them up for the rest of their life.

It’s something I reflected on when thinking about my journey last week across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for our amazing Team UK selection events. The young people I met who were competing for a place at the Skills Olympics displayed exactly the kinds of characteristics that employers say they want – and this is backed up by hard evidence. For instance, last year we asked young people we work about the skills they’d need to give them the best chances for future careers success: nearly half (42% and 45%, respectively) said it was interpersonal skills and ambition that was foremost in their minds. The overlap here with what employers say they want is crucial. Traits like good interpersonal skills and ambition are brought out to the fullest by WorldSkills UK programme of skills competitions. At every level, from our regional heats, through national finals and our international development programme, young people get the opportunity not only to develop a series of specific technical skills but also the broader interpersonal skills so crucial to success in the workplace of tomorrow. It’s why I encourage young people, parents and employers to get involved in our competitions and with registration for our next national cycle open right now there really is no time like the present!

It’s imperative that the decisions we make about young people’s futures draw on the widest possible range of opinions. Within this mix, the views of parents, employers, and importantly, young people themselves, all should be weighted highly. I think what our own research insights demonstrate is the value of taking a broad approach. For parents who continue to prioritise degrees as the benchmark for future careers success, our finding that many employers have a different opinion might offer useful food for thought. And if parents are ambitious for young people to succeed, getting involved in our skills development programmes can help provide some of the essential elements that employers are looking for now and in the future.

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