One of the most common complaints we hear from our graduate-recruiting clients is that the new batch of British workers ‘doesn’t have the appropriate skills’.
Yet, according to university results, graduates are more successful than ever, with more top-grade degrees being awarded now than any time in British history. One in six graduates received a first class degree in 2011 – this statistic was less than one in twelve a mere decade ago.
So what has changed? Are we getting more intelligent as a nation or have standards been slipping?
Perhaps the answer rests in the recent announcement that the GCSEs will be replaced by the English Baccalaureate. With degree, A-Level and GCSE results having seemingly reached new peaks each year, the overhaul of the first key qualification combines with the growing dissatisfaction reported in graduate recruiters to suggest the problem lays within the education system.
In support of this theory, the House of Lords Science & Technology committee recently claimed that the Quality Assurance Association fails to guarantee graduate standards, thus leading to employment standards not being met and contributing to the increasing number of people classified as not in education, employment, or training (NEETs).
A recent report by the Association of Graduate Recruiters stated that graduate starting salaries were increasing (an average of £26,500 now) but, more ominously, also said that there was increasing competition for graduate jobs.
Note – it did not say there were less graduate jobs. This would suggest the level of demand for graduates has not risen in line with the amount of graduates being churned out by universities.
In some cases, the statistics were worrying (an average of 73 students apply for each graduate position) and, in others, they were downright terrifying (more than 150 candidates apply for each graduate job in the retail industry).
Other statistics from various UK universities show that up to 22 per cent of students have not found work six months after graduation. Even Oxford University is reporting a 9.6 per cent graduate unemployment rate. Evidently gone are the days when an Oxbridge degree guaranteed a top job from the word go.
So, putting these statistics into perspective, up to one in five students will go through three or more years of study within a specific field and then spend six months (or more) without employment.
Choosing the right subject
A problem has been the movement towards what are known as ‘soft subject’ degree courses, such as sports science or hospitality management. ‘Classic’ degrees, dealing with a broad subject such as Maths, English or Languages, may not prepare the graduate for any specific job but give grounding to diversify into multiple industries. ‘Soft’ degrees limit students to a career in one specific sector.
The issue is that there are a limited number of jobs within the ‘soft subject’ sectors, leaving numerous graduates with a generally undesirable degree and very few transferrable skills to offer companies that value broader skill-sets.
‘Soft’ skills, not soft subjects
Beyond the issue of non-transferable skills, there also seems to be an increase in ignorance of what I would consider ‘the basics’ – things that should, surely, is common sense. For example, I would always expect a candidate to turn up for an interview in a suit, shake my hand properly, greet me politely, smile and make eye contact during our meeting. Apparently these aren’t things that many younger jobseekers are aware should be considered as standard.
Written English is suffering too. I would expect anybody with a degree to be able to produce documents and emails with accurate spelling and grammar. This appears to not be the case any longer. Do we point the finger at modern ‘TXT culture’, universities overlooking poor basics, or these rudimentary communication skills not being taught or absorbed well enough at an earlier stage in education?
It seems like the future of Britain is not being properly prepared for the early steps in their career, only the later ones. Our universities might produce people who are very knowledgeable in their particular subject (notwithstanding whether the subject is valid or desirable) but don’t seem to be helping their students grasp the basic concepts and courtesies of interpersonal interaction that will allow them to take those vital first steps in their career. There’s a word for those with excellent capability but no interpersonal skills – robots.
Does the education system need to include classes or courses on employability skills? Perhaps there would be significant value in brief courses on how to write a CV, approach a potential employer and present oneself at interview. It’s definitely something I would support.
Business leaders favour school leavers over graduates
Nearly one fifth (18 per cent) of the UK’s business leaders believe school leavers make better employees than university graduates.
The research carried out by recruitment agency Adecco Group Solutions surveyed 500 business employers (with company turnover ranging from £500,000 to £20 million) and 1,000 employees across the UK.
It seems more businesses are offering apprenticeships to school leavers, with 43 per cent of the employees questioned confirming their companies recently set up apprenticeship schemes.
Chris Moore, managing director of Adecco Group Solutions says: ‘We have found employers now hold attitude and personality (91 per cent) in greater esteem than academic or even vocational qualifications (35 per cent) when assessing new recruits.’
Worryingly, more than one in three employers (36 per cent) surveyed feel the current education system fails to equip young people with the critical skills required by British businesses. Employers feel newcomers are most lacking in interpersonal skills (41 per cent), and critical IT skills (41 per cent).
The findings are compounded by employees with nearly half (46 per cent) admitting their degree failed to provide the right skills to enter business.
Moore adds: ‘Although extremely valuable, a strong academic record is no longer a sufficient prerequisite for entry into today’s working environment.
‘The government has to listen to employers who are telling us that our education system has to ensure soft skills are valued alongside an emphasis on academic excellence.’