Employers lament lack of skills among school leavers

A worrying number of school leavers are entering the jobs market with inadequate skill levels, a new report has suggested.

A survey conducted by the CBI found that, of the 566 employers polled, four out of ten were unhappy with the basic use of English by school and college leavers, while more than a third (35 per cent) were concerned with the basic numeracy skills in this age group.

To make good the skills deficit, almost a half of firms (44 per cent) said that they had to spend money in remedial training for new recruits.

Employers also bemoaned the absence of important employability skills, with 69 per cent of respondents claiming that school leavers lacked business and customer awareness. A further 55 per cent identified a weakness in the ability of school leavers to manage their time and tasks.

Although the picture was brighter when it came to graduates, some 70 per cent of employers thought that university students needed to do more to ready themselves for life in the workplace.

John Cridland, the CBI’s director-general, commented:
”It’s alarming that a significant number of employers have concerns about the basic skills of school and college leavers. Companies do not expect them to produce ‘job-ready’ young people, but having a solid foundation in basic skills, such as literacy and numeracy, is fundamental for work.

“Employability skills are crucial to making the smooth transition from education to the workplace, but companies are finding that school leavers lack many of these essential competencies. The best way to overcome this is to embed the teaching of these skills into curriculum and course structures.”

Elsewhere in the CBI’s annual education and skills survey, there appeared to be a significant shortfall in the number of candidates with the right type of skills needed to support businesses that export high quality goods and services.

While two-thirds of employers considered skill levels among their employees satisfactory for current activities, over a half (52 per cent) were not confident of meeting future needs for increased numbers of high-skilled employees, particularly in science, engineering and maths.

Shortages in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills seemed widespread, with 43 per cent of employers having difficulty recruiting staff in these areas, rising to 53 per cent who expected to have difficulty in the next year.

According to 62 per cent of businesses, the Government must tackle these shortages by promoting science and maths in schools, and supporting STEM-related apprenticeship programmes.

Employers showed a willingness to pay a premium for staff with STEM skills, with 40 per cent of companies in science and IT and 33 per cent in construction reporting that STEM graduates earn more than other graduates over the course of their careers.

Mr Cridland added: “With UK businesses looking to win a larger share of global markets as we rebalance the economy, the skills bar is constantly being raised by international competition. Higher-skilled employees, especially in science, technology, engineering and maths will be some of the most in demand.

“The Government must improve the take-up of science and maths in schools and support the development of STEM apprenticeship programmes so that employers are able to recruit the right people to drive growth.”

On internal training and apprenticeships, the UK enjoys a reasonably good record. Some 90 per cent of UK employers provide a form of training compared with the EU average of just 60 per cent.

That said, the CBI pointed out that the administrative demands and the costs of running training schemes deter many smaller firms.

Only 14 per cent of smaller firms currently provide apprenticeships as opposed to 83 per cent of organisations with over 5,000 staff. More than a half of respondents (56 per cent) wanted more financial incentives for recruiting and training, and a similar proportion wanted a cut in levels of red tape associated with accessing Government funding and support for training.

Many larger firms have already made or are looking to make links with universities, the CBI reported. This takes the form of providing sandwich years for work placements (46 per cent) and partnering with universities on research and innovation (40 per cent). When asked about priorities for higher education, 64 per cent of companies said that courses should be made more business relevant.

Engagement with secondary schools was likewise deemed important for many firms. Two-thirds said they had already established links with schools, and 36 per cent have increased their ties over the last year through work experience, supporting careers’ advice and providing school governors.

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