Students are 'not ready for work'

As thousands of A-level and GCSE students prepare to choose between continuing their education and seeking employment, new research shows that the education system is not meeting the recruitment needs of owners of small businesses.

More students involved in further education are passing their exams, but despite a record number of A-level ‘A’ grades in 2008, the Forum of Private Business’ (FPB) members are reporting that too few school- and college-leavers with the skills and attributes they require are entering the job market. The FPB’s research indicates that around three-quarters of a million small businesses have had to recruit individuals with fewer skills than they had hoped for, before training them.

“There is a clear gap between what businesses need and what businesses get when it comes to the ability of the education system to produce viable employees for small businesses,” said Phil Orford, the FPB's chief executive. Basic skills valued by employers are literacy, numeracy, English language communication and basic ICT skills, such as using email. However, the FPB’s analysis indicates that, while small businesses consider the current labour force to have ‘good’ or ‘very good’ skills, it is considered to be ‘average’ by 68 per cent of small business employers, and 18 per cent of small businesses feel that labour force skills are ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.

Of the employability attributes deemed to be ‘crucial’, a willingness to learn is the most important (57.1 per cent), followed by a work ethic and professional approach (42.9 per cent), and team working (25.9 per cent). Interpersonal skills are also crucial, while 15 per cent believe the current labour market is not providing workers who have these attributes.

The majority of the small businesses surveyed value school- and college-leavers over graduates and postgraduates. Just 11 per cent seek out graduates or postgraduates when recruiting, but almost double prefer younger employees, fresh from school or college. In addition, three-quarters of small-business employers do not require employees with ‘university’ skills, while a third want people with technical and craft skills that are not provided by universities.

According to the survey, 18 per cent of business-owners believe that the labour market available to them is ‘very poor’ or ‘poor’ in providing employees with ‘higher-level’ attributes, such as foreign language skills, critical thinking and graduate-level science, technology, engineering and maths. In contrast, 15 per cent believe that the skills levels of graduates are ‘good’ or ‘very good’. In all, two-thirds of the small businesses employing graduates feel that their skills levels are ‘average’.

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