There is a current flurry of government activity aimed at helping unemployed (or under-employed) people find jobs. The latest is to cut or reduce the already criminally low benefit they receive. I believe there are several key issues which are missing from the debate. First, the inconvenient truth is that we do not, as a nation, require any schemes which provide help for people finding jobs. The basis for these schemes is that the reason there are so many people unemployed is because people are not trying hard enough to find a job. It is the Norman Tebbit “get on your bike” argument that there are millions of people who are so feckless, they cannot be bothered to find a job and they need training so their CV looks better and they know to polish their shoes and turn up on time for interviews. I exaggerate slightly – but only slightly. The truth of the situation is that as a nation, we simply do not have enough jobs to go around. The shocking news that we have nearly a million under 25s out of work and situation is worse than it’s been since Wet Wet Wet was (were?) number 1. Those entering the job market in 2013 are experiencing the worst employment situation in their lifetime. So my first note is that there are nowhere near enough jobs to go around and providing help with interviews etc is money that would be better be spent elsewhere.
Curiously though, despite the overall shortage of jobs, there would appear to still be something of a skills shortage. This was a recurring message from employers in the year running up to the 2008 financial disaster – “we can’t find skilled people to hire”. In some ways this seems to still be the case. My role at Aston Business School was coordinator of links to business and I was barraged by businesses wanting to target students so they can find the ones with the talents they seek. Business is becoming ever more subtle in the way they do this – a huge inflatable tent from Microsoft last year or a tempting prize of high level work experience from Reckitt Benckiser for the highest mark on my module, sponsorship of all kinds of student activity from Ernst and Young and on and on. We definitely welcomed this activity as it meant the students would be talking to business people and building evidence to make their career decisions. It shows that business is actively engaging with students and validates the quality of education delivered by our universities. However, it does look rather different from the national picture of awful job prospects especially for young people.
Can it be that as a nation we are short of people to do some jobs whilst others have an impossibly high bar to entry? I think this might well be true. So we need to focus more on building useful skills in our graduates and making sure these are the skills relevant to the jobs that need to be filled. Our students are like all students though – they expect that their education will build the skills they need to gain useful, worthwhile, stimulating work.
Because of this dire situation, we in the Higher Education sector have a responsibility to try and produce graduates who are ready to take on the demands of working our way out of the current difficulties. Here I do have some experience and some suggestions to make. The requirement is that graduates leave university and move in to their first graduate role with tremendous analytical skills. Those students who studied business should also have some knowledge of their profession. But most important of all, those graduates who have incorporated work experience within their degree will have an understanding of how work works. Businesses want graduates who know how to talk to people, how to run meetings, how to project manage, how to dress, how to write emails, how internal politics works, how to… well how to work. It seems so many of our young people have not picked up these “basics”. Hence the focus at Aston and some other universities on the one year placement in the 3rd year of study. There is a massive benefit of students having a year to apply the knowledge they have picked up in their first two years. To get used to working and seeing how their career might develop. Many businesses are now realising the huge value that extending a degree to 4 years by the addition of an integrated year of work experience. Graduates arrive ready to work – prepared to take on real projects and deliver them on time and to budget. In the current climate with the shift of funding of universities from the state to the individual, there is more pressure on students to graduate as fast as they can so they can start earning. This might place pressure on young people to opt for degrees which have no work based element so they can graduate in three years rather than four. I have to say this is a mistake. Taking the extra year makes degrees worth more since graduates are more able to pick the job they want and transition into the workplace far more easily. There is a financial benefit too with students who have had a placement year earning more than those who do not. But I am more exercised about the quality of career open to graduates and the choices available to them.
So I really hope that I hear less about forcing the unemployed into training schemes they neither want nor need and hear more about proper investment in real work skills. Sadly the former seem to deliver the type of headlines politicians are keener on.