AS A parent of teenagers I often think about the opportunities and challenges they face moving from education to the world of work.
Who doesn’t want their child to succeed in life and to gain fulfilling and meaningful employment, providing both material reward and the opportunity to grow as an individual and use their talent?
For some time I viewed university and higher education as the main pathway to enter this world of work. Since the 1980s we have been told that the future will require better educated and skilled workers to drive economic growth, and since the 1990s we have seen huge growth in the numbers of young people entering Higher Education in Scotland and the wider UK. Despite an increase in the number of people entering university from around 50,000 in 1960 to 400,000 in 2007, there are still concerns about both the skills gap in the UK and the functioning of the youth labour market.
The CBI’s recent New Routes to Higher Skills report points out nearly half of all employment is set to be in managerial, professional or associated services by 2020 and that there is significant employer demand for higher level skills in key sectors such as construction, manufacturing, science and engineering. Yet their recommendation to tackle the gap is not greater expansion of higher education. It proposes new and more flexible pathways to skill, re-skill and up-skill the workforce.
For young people embarking on their journey through the world of work, expanded models of collaboration between schools, further and higher education and industry are required – specifically boosting “work-based” learning such as the number of apprentices. Some critics assert that any vocational option is second rate and everyone should have the right to higher education. Yet this is about promoting more accessible and intensive work based approaches to acquiring the right skills and capabilities to enable young people to make a more effective transition into productive work and respond to the needs of industry and the wider economy.
There is strong evidence that post-industrial economies with strong work-based education and training systems have lower levels of youth unemployment. Many of these also have stronger economic growth. Only 32 per cent of young people in the UK choose work-based routes compared with roughly 70 per cent in Austria and 74 per cent in Switzerland.
Even within the UK there is evidence that some work-based pathways, such as construction and engineering apprenticeships, confer lifetime earnings on a par with a graduate. Many companies such as Siemens and PwC are reinventing old models of work-based learning and recruiting and training advanced apprentices to meet their future skills needs.
In Switzerland, Andres Meerstetter, head of vocational education in the Canton of Zurich, talks about the “one mission – three partners” model, where employers, parents and the education system are focussed on helping young people into productive work. Some 56,000 young people aged 15-16 start their senior phase schooling as employed apprentices in a comprehensive work-based approach to learning and education. It’s not viewed as a lesser option but the “gold standard” – and with youth employment rates of 7.7 per cent, it appears to work.
The Swiss system places employers and industry in a central role and moves beyond an “us and them” scenario where industry might be critical of the education system for not producing people with the right kind of skills and attitudes.
Similarly in Baden-Wuerttemberg, 80 per cent of employers are actively engaged in training young apprentices - and with a jobless youth rate of just 4 per cent, Baden-Wuerttemberg is the best-performing Land in Germany.
In Scotland, Forth Valley College and Heriot-Watt University’s Engineers of the Future programme is a great example of engaging industry in developing flexible, work-based pathways for learners. Scotland is ideally placed to address these skills challenges and deliver a more unified system, helping young people make the transition from education into work. The first challenge is perhaps a cultural one, starting to recognise and promote work-based approaches, such as apprenticeships, as the valuable route into work they are today.
• Damien Yeates is chief executive of Skills Development Scotland www.sds.co.uk