Bridging the gap between education and employment

At this time of year, as thousands of young people receive their examination results, discussion inevitably turns to how well the education system prepares them for the world of work.

In essence, I believe that there is a better discussion to be had: we should be asking how well the education system prepares young people for whatever progression they choose to make. For some this will be a period of job seeking and for some it will be direct entry into work. For some it will be a move into a higher level of education and for others it will be travel. In reality, for many it will be a combination of these, meaning that they need to leave this stage of their education with a wide range of skills and capabilities.

Employers are often asked what they are looking for in young people and it is easy to talk about attributes such as sound academics and “employability skills”, project management and team working. These are very important but it is also worth looking at other options so as not to miss out on talented young people. Maybe some haven’t blossomed in the traditional education system or haven’t gained some of the skills in team working that we might expect to see demonstrated on a CV.


There are three characteristics that I believe are good indicators of how a young person might succeed in the workplace:

Andy palmer

Andy Palmer, director of education and skills, BT.

1 Commitment – can someone demonstrate that they have been committed to something? Have they got up on cold mornings to deliver papers or volunteered to help people in an old peoples’ home. Are they willing to put themselves out and not give up when the going gets tough?

2 Passion – do they have a passion for something? Have they religiously followed the fortunes of a football team or do they know everything about a band. Are they able to talk about this and gain my interest?

3 Innovation – do they have ideas? Can they think about things in a way that I may not? Do they have an imagination for what could be?

Imagine a young person with these characteristics and how they might be talking to a customer or colleagues. They would be able to enthuse, solve problems, help and stick with things even when they became difficult. I would always be inclined to look for these characteristics before turning my eye to academic capability.


Young people in the work place will certainly need more than a basic level of competence in Maths, English and IT. I don’t necessarily think that work-related competence in these subjects is demonstrated by attainment in GCSEs and A-Levels.

Functional skills in schools and colleges might be a useful route for young people who aren’t able to manage traditional qualifications in maths, English and IT. Functional skills should also be useful qualifications for people who don’t want to study these subjects at a higher level and simply want to have the skills to communicate, use numbers and operate IT in the work place.

Some employers may complain about the quality of young people coming out of schools – that they lack the skills and competence that they are looking for.

However, I don’t believe that young people are any worse today than they were a generation ago. The skill levels that we expect of young people in their first jobs have increased over the years as the breadth of roles that they undertake and the technology that we expect them to use has expanded. This is why the apprenticeship route is such a useful entry into employment for young people, as they can develop their skills and competence over a long period of time with the support of experienced people.

I wonder how long it has been since those employers who complain stepped into their local school, college or university. When did they last speak to the local education system about what they are looking for in young people? When did they last offer to give a careers talk or mentor a young person making important decisions about the rest of their lives? Have they offered to provide a work-related project or have they offered a work placement.

Employers should be more than just customers of the education system. Never before has the education system been so open to input and support from employers, and never before have young people needed employers to give them relevant advice and guidance so they can gain entry into the workforce.

Employers need to build on these partnerships or we risk simply staying where we are, with employers bemoaning the qualities of young people and fulfilling jobs feeling unattainable for a generation of really talented people.

Andy Palmer is director, education and skills at BT

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