The latest unemployment figures make depressing reading if you are under 24, with more than 1 in 5 young people now being unemployed. Whilst the headlines will trumpet this as news, the reality is that youth unemployment has been on an upwards trend for many years, even in the “boom” times. Indeed given the greater numbers of university entrants now, the real amount of young people “not in employment” is much higher.
So why has this come about? For too long younger members of society have been poorly treated by our generation, which seems to have forgotten the reason and importance of education as a preparation for the world of work. An obsession with league tables and exam passes, which can easily be manipulated, has led us to produce a cadre of young people who emerge into the real world of earning a living with the wide-eyed gaze of a new-born baby.
Now is the time to put aside ideological and political standpoints and agree a cross party approach to education which will not be touched for the next 10-15 years. If there is one element of our society which is calling out for a carefully thought through and implemented strategy it is education. For too long we have tolerated political tinkering (from all parties), the creeping influence of ideological views, poor teaching and incorrect investment. Despite this there are numerous examples of clear thought, inspirational teachers and an understanding of and liaison with business – just not enough to make a real difference.
I have taken a keen interest in the links between education and industry for many years and can understand the frustration on both sides, who are encumbered with a state of affairs which is not remotely fit for purpose. Perhaps the only league table that should be produced is how many young people are engaged in gainful employment within 12 months of leaving school or university. At least then we can judge which schools prepare their young people for life beyond education. Of course this is a crude measure and there are many more factors to take into account but without a clear vision as to the purpose of education, from primary school to university, we are destined to retain high youth unemployment which is a crushing burden on society and a scandalous waste of talent. If only a fraction of this wasted money was invested into preventing unemployment everyone would be better off.
To be effective however, any readjustment cannot be subject to the winds of political change, hence the need for a national education strategy agreed by all and with safeguards enshrined in legislation which prevents political meddling. The compact needs to work both ways; schools and universities have to adjust to producing young people ready and able for the world of work rather than with grades and degrees in subjects with little hope of a realistic career path. I accept that a good degree can provide proof of analytical thought, individual opinion and in some cases knowledge of industry requirements. Against this, the majority of graduates are woefully prepared for the world of work as so little time or effort is made to engage business, learn its requirements and prepare accordingly. A degree is therefore no longer a passport to a job, partly due to the flawed experiment of the expansion in the number of graduates – to meet an arbitrary target.
It is not all despair – there are some degrees which provide the model for others to follow. Medicine comes to mind. I doubt that there is a member of society who would want to see a doctor without a degree. Coupled with the practical work experience which is an integral part of the degree we produce medical graduates who stand shoulder to shoulder with the best in the world. Here, industry and education are seamless.
As a part of the agreement to leave education untouched for a 15 year period I would wish to see EVERY degree encompass the same interaction with industry as seen in medicine. Unless a degree offers a substantial portion (e.g. 25% +) of on job training in industry then perhaps it should not be allowed to be provided. Add this to a provisional career path which is mapped out at the start of a degree and followed up regularly with professional support then we have an exciting future. This renewed approach would galvanise education, improve industry and produce graduates who will be employable – in the career of their choice.
I employ 70 people – with a young average age. Recently we advertised entry grade positions and had 400 applications – many with degrees. Most were rejected through not meeting the simple instructions requested; poor spelling and CV’s produced in something akin to text speak. Those individuals who were successful have been a delight to work with; enthusiastic, hardworking, willing to learn and bursting with potential (neither has degrees). Academic qualifications do not mean a thing if there is no personality or social skills to accompany them – this is where many young people fall down.
We have a wonderful resource in our young people but now is the time to harness this and use it to build a bright future. The question is how many self-interested politicians, antiquated union barons, disinterested lecturers and short-sighted CEO’s will put aside their posturing to secure a great future for every young person leaving education?