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Learning how to work

31 October 2019
Roundtable Vale & West
The Roundtable team

Accountants Vale & West hosted this roundtable with the assistance of St Joseph’s College, Reading. The two organisations both celebrate their 125th anniversaries this year. The roundtable was organised in association with media partners, The Business Magazine. Tim Wickham reports the highlights.

Achieving work-ready talent

Employers, students and organisations that connect these two groups sat around the table to discuss whether schools are producing students with the required talent for today’s world of work.

Chair John Burbedge began by reminding participants that the Thames Valley boasts one of Europe’s most dynamic and vibrant workforces. Nevertheless, he said, the region's employers and educators face challenges in making sure a pipeline of work-ready talent keeps flowing.

The employers on the panel were keen to share their recruitment experiences and hear how St Joseph’s student leaders view the challenges of life after school and university. The engaging debate highlighted the importance of schools and employers maintaining close ties to ensure students make a successful transition from student to employee.

State of the job market

Three of the participants represented organisations that facilitate the transition. Thames Valley Berkshire LEP supports sustainable economic growth in the region, recruitment consultant Marks Sattin specialises in placing talented people with entrepreneurial businesses, and Education Business Partnership arranges work experience placements for students and runs events and activities in schools with business volunteers to prepare and inspire our future workforce.

Allison Giles from Thames Valley Berkshire LEP said there continues to be a gap between what businesses want and what the academic world delivers. “We are about to publish a skills and labour market conditions statement and although the situation in 2019 is not that dissimilar to 2018,” she said. “Early findings are that the Berkshire’s labour market is cooling. There is also evidence of disadvantaged young people in Berkshire doing less well than those in other parts of the country. One area we are focusing on is promoting the role of careers leaders in schools and helping schools to develop careers programmes that are fit for purpose.”

Education Business Partnership helps businesses engage with schools and young people through volunteer hours and 1,500 work experience placements available across the Thames Valley. EBP’s Michelle Smith said: “Having dedicated careers leads in schools makes a massive difference. There is a real challenge in providing consistent support to students in schools across the region. One way of doing that is finding better ways to track and monitor what support each student receives.”

Providing students with work experience would answer one of the major issues expressed by companies to Marks Sattin. Karen Chilton said: "Companies want candidates with practical skills and experience who can add value to the business straightaway.”

Future types of work

Exactly what types of work tomorrow's employees will undertake is changing, which makes it harder for students to identify their best career path. Chilton observed: "Automation technology, like machine learning and AI, is changing the jobs that people do and this affects how students look at their long-term careers.”

That means schools need to future-proof their students' array of skills to cope with uncertainty about both job roles and job security. “The workforce needs to be agile, adaptable and resilient. People are more likely to work in a series of jobs once they leave education. They need to feel confident and motivated about this when they leave school,” said Smith.

The idea of a job for life was a thing of the past, participants agreed. In fact, many of today’s jobs didn’t exist a decade ago, especially in the technology sector. The findings of Vale & West’s recent research on millennial entrepreneurs confirmed this, said Jason Pyke: “Younger entrepreneurs have a different mindset to their entrepreneurial predecessors. They aren’t wedded to careers and know they probably won’t be doing the same thing in 10 years’ time.”

Be prepared

St Joseph College’s student leadership team offered their views on how they see the future employment landscape. Head girl Angelica Reyes-Caceres said: “I agree that young people should be self assured and know their strengths and weaknesses. But companies need to be more open about getting students involved in work experience.”

Her deputy, Lydia Sheppard, added: “I think you need to learn different skills at school that can go towards your career goals, even if you don’t know exactly what you want to do.”

Head boy Hugh Pullin wondered how much of his A-level maths syllabus would be relevant in business. “I realise a lot of what I’m studying might not necessarily get me where I want to go. I think there is a gap between what we study and what companies might need.”

Pullin’s deputy, Louis Upton-Wheeler, noted that it was important to look at studying outside your curriculum, in order to bring broader interests to the job interview table. “There’s a lot of pressure for you to know what you want to do and I think some students perhaps hold back because they don’t have the confidence to try different things," he said.

Are schools developing the talent employers need?

St Joseph’s bursar Anthony Leggett emphasised the importance of focusing on core skills rather than just core subjects. “We’re trying to develop the four Cs in all our students: communication, commitment, collaboration and confidence. They’re capabilities we think employers look for.”

Participants agreed that there are many benefits to recruiting school and university leavers based on a combination of personal qualities and academic achievements. Motorsport gearbox manufacturer Xtrac has been running apprenticeships since 2003 and is adept at spotting talent at an early stage.

“In engineering, the arts and design subjects are just as important as maths and physics. It’s very interesting to see how young people develop. Some of the recruits we take on haven’t done particularly well at school, but we see they have flair and some go on to be high achievers,” said Warren Page.

At St Joseph's, students are encouraged to participate in a Young Enterprise scheme, where they set up and run their own companies. Reyes-Caceres was recently in a Young Enterprise team that started an eco-friendly business focused on offering recycling ideas for the home.

Headmaster Andrew Colpus said: “Young Enterprise helps students learn a range of skills and is a very good eye on the business world.”

As an employer, Blandy & Blandy is well aware of the benefits of extracurricular endeavours in potential recruits. Tim Clark said: “Academic work sets the bar, but it’s the practical experiences students have that can make a real difference with prospective employers.”

A challenge many schools face is being forced by budget cuts to reduce the choice of subjects available to students. That’s a concern as they are all important, said Colpus: “All the subjects we teach will help students in the workplace, whether STEM or arts-based subjects. They help students learn how to become problem solvers and team workers, which are core business skills.”

Soft skills

Should talent be nurtured only in schools or by companies as well? Both have a role to play, everyone agreed. However, businesses can face a number of challenges. Kathryn Cutts said Vale & West looks for recruits who are good communicators. “It’s getting rarer these days for young people to develop good communications skills before they begin their careers, for example, to be confident talking to our clients. I can see that St Joseph’s tries to imbue these skills in its pupils."

Berni Maguire at Nouveau Solutions agreed. “For us, social communication skills as just as important as academic skills.”

Xtrac accepts that not everyone arrives work-ready and, for Page, it is an enjoyable challenge to bring the best out in his new apprentice recruits. “It’s important for employers to recognise talent in young people. It’s something we can nurture and develop,” he said. “In our September apprentice intake we have people who are confident and others who hold back. By Christmas, they’re all at the same level – we bring out the best in them."

Feedback to EBP from employers is that they want innovators, risk takers, people who will make a difference. “But the education system tends to be based on conformity, with a structured curriculum delivery model and timetabled days. Some students find it hard to adjust to managing their own time and displaying a willingness to take calculated risks,” thought Smith.

One aspect highlighted by Leggett was the impact of austerity measures on preparing students for the workplace. The expense of in-house training for companies and the loss of employers' training departments, has led to outsourced training by specialist providers –and, direct association between schools and workplaces has reduced, he felt. However, many schools are very aware of this issue and are now trying to build relationships with employers, through job fairs and the like, so that students can be well prepared for the expectations of future employers and, as at St. Joseph's with its 'Four Cs', can provide holistic core skills that will be universally important in the workplace, Leggett observed.

Employers have a role to play in communicating with schools to explain what skills they are looking for, thought Giles. “Schools are expected to produce a ‘provider access policy statement’ to guide training providers, employers and others in linking up with students,” she said. “However, some schools may be reluctant to publish a statement as they fear losing pupils as a result. Employers have their part to play too, by encouraging their graduate employees and apprentices to volunteer time back in schools.”

Risk of losing talent

Talent is a valuable commodity that can be traded, or by poaching staff from other companies – a tactic not uncommon among football’s elite clubs, suggested Leggett. “Some companies follow the ‘Man City’ approach where one football club lets another bring on talented players, who they then buy by offering higher salaries. That’s a reality for many businesses. The problem could be that everyone ends up buying and no-one does the training.”

Page shared Xtrac’s own experience of this: “We’ve had apprentices poached before they’d even finished their studies. The companies who poach them tell us they know the individuals have a good pedigree because they have trained with us.”

Blandy & Blandy also knew what it felt like. “It can be painful if a solicitor gets headhunted just as they complete their two-year training,” said Clark. “But you can take measures to increase employee loyalty. And, I think employees have to think carefully about bouncing around between too many employers, as that may not help their careers in the long run.”

One solution is to be smarter than your competitors, said Maguire. “As a smaller business we can be more agile in training apprentices. By providing work-based projects aligned to their certification level enables them to put knowledge into practice which is a win for the apprentice and for the business. This helps build loyalty and it’s great to see them grow and become more confident.”

Vale & West invests a lot of time and money making its work environment as good as it can be. “We have a responsibility to create conditions in which employees will thrive and feel valued,” said Pyke.

Work placements

Participants agreed that work placements have never been more important, then discussed the challenges around setting them up and making them rewarding experiences for both students and companies.

St Joseph's students were positive about their work placements. Pullin found time spent seeing the legal profession in action at Reading Crown Court "very helpful”. Sheppard praised the college's work experience week. However, looking for a Saturday job to gain further experience wasn't as easy as she thought it would be. "It took me a long time to find a part-time job to help build up my work experience," she said.

“The placement should work for students and employers. They can help us develop our talent and make progress in our career choices," thought Upton-Wheeler.

A particular challenge facing smaller businesses is making the time commitment needed to provide a good and rewarding work placement. “It can be hard to give students a proper experience. It takes time to set up, especially carrying out their health and safety assessments, so the earlier schools contact us about placements the better,” said Cutts of Vale & West.

EBP finds that some employers hesitate in offering placements as they'd rather not do it at all, rather than not do it well. "One solution is to rotate the student around different roles during the week so it is less of a burden on any single member of staff or department and gives the student a great overview of the company," commented Smith.

Funding issues

Not surprisingly, a lack of central government funding was highlighted as a stumbling block in developing work-ready talent. “The Government should fund schools properly so they have a fighting chance of being able to get students work-ready. Another important change would be if a portion of the apprenticeship levy that companies pay could be used to promote sectors and apprenticeships,” said Smith.

Leggett saw funding as a long-term problem: “The Government’s past decision to close its Careers Advisory Service, which had been available for schools to co-ordinate work experience, wasn’t a good idea. It left schools to arrange careers advice themselves, but with no extra funding.”

However, the Careers and Enterprise Company is providing support for schools through the Enterprise Adviser Network (led by LEPs) providing business volunteers to work with schools. The network provides advice on creating comprehensive careers and enterprise programmes and connections to employers and employees to promote work readiness skills to all young people. Giles: “To support businesses, we are learning lessons from pilots on levy transfers and Thames Valley Berkshire LEP is exploring opportunities to utilise the Apprenticeship Levy underspend within Berkshire.”

As well as businesses, schools can find that nurturing talent comes at a price when their priority is on teaching and meeting performance targets. Headmaster Colpus said it was a constant challenge: “Every school is a business and we live in a society where we are judged on our exam results. But we also need to prepare students for the world of work. It’s a tightrope we have to tread.”

Useful lessons

At the end of the roundtable, there was general consensus that everyone had learned some useful lessons. Employers felt they could get more involved with schools, while the organisations that provide an interface between work and school expressed both frustration with the current situation and determination to finding effective solutions.

The final word went to those on the panel who are expected to be work-ready: the students. Upton-Wheeler: “The skills I learned from Young Enterprise were really beneficial. But it was extra-curriculum time. If you are learning useful skills for work, then you should be given more time to do it. It has been extremely useful hearing at the Roundtable how the business world works, for example, the importance of work experience.”

Sheppard added: “I’ve learned a lot from the roundtable, particularly about apprenticeships. Learning on the job is something students should perhaps be thinking about.”

While Reyes-Carceres said: “I can see that offering work experience places can be costly for businesses, especially smaller companies. The Government could provide funding for this, as a way to develop work-ready talent.”


John Burbedge: The Business Magazine, chaired the discussion

Karen Chilton: recruitment consultant, Marks Sattin

Tim Clark: employment lawyer, Blandy & Blandy

Andrew Colpus: headmaster, St Joseph’s College

Kathryn Cutts: partner, Vale & West chartered accountants

Allison Giles: careers hub lead, Thames Valley Berkshire LEP

Anthony Leggett: bursar, St Joseph’s College

Hugh Pullin: head boy, St. Joseph’s College

Jason Pyke: partner, Vale & West chartered accountants

Angelica Reyes-Caceres: head girl, St Joseph’s College

Berni Maguire: head of marketing, Nouveau Solutions

Warren Page: apprentice manager, Xtrac

Lydia Sheppard: deputy head girl, St Joseph’s College

Michelle Smith: chief executive, Education Business Partnership

Louis Upton-Wheeler: deputy head boy, St Joseph’s College

Work placement offered in joint 125th celebration

Reading-based accountants Vale & West and the town's St Joseph's College are both celebrating their 125th anniversaries this year. The school is a Vale & West client and the two organisations have enjoyed a close connection for many years.

To mark the 125th legacy link, Vale & West will provide an ongoing annual work experience opportunity at its Reading office for a St Joseph's student. The offer was formally announced at the roundtable, where the firm and the college shared the view that work placements remain an excellent way to help create work-ready talent.

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