Businesses are struggling to recruit young people, many of whom lack the confidence and the work experience to thrive despite labour and skills shortages. Tom Ravenscroft, CEO of non-profit organisation Skills Builder Partnership, proposes a solution.
The UK’s jobs market seems to be broken.
Since 2020, HR professionals have been tested by waves of challenges: the pandemic itself, the subsequent “great resignation”, and a “silver exodus” of over-50 workers. Almost half of UK employers have reported hard-to-fill vacancies this year, including 78% of small businesses. Two-thirds anticipate problems filling high-skilled vacancies in the next six months, or fear making “bad hires” costing thousands.
It’s challenging to find the right people, and our specifications were very broad and generic, but we didn’t know how to improve them” – Charlotte Treverton-Jones, HR manager, AKW Medi-care
At the same time, I increasingly see disillusionment setting in among younger workers and jobseekers. A third of young people say that employers don’t want to hire them and that they’ll never achieve their career ambitions. Only 14% believe they can access high-quality work in their area. They’re finding it difficult to know where to look for jobs and careers advice, or otherwise wade through the often opaque language of recruitment.
Why are young people convinced that employers aren’t interested in recruiting them? And why are employers facing a shortage of talent?
Youth underemployment has long been a challenge. Young people are more qualified than ever before. But they are entering the post-pandemic labour market with minimal work experience. Many now occupy lower skilled, lower paid positions without progression – stuck in a careers cul-de-sac on wages that are failing to keep pace with inflation.
The frustration is reflected in trends like “quiet quitting” and “acting your wage”. “We have an untapped pool of potential out there, waiting to be unlocked, but there are barriers in our way,” says Milly Dawson, project manager at youth charity Movement to Work.
She adds: “Over half of young people think their biggest barrier is a lack of work experience, and only 36% of young people in education have access to it – causing low self-confidence.” It would be easy to pin the blame on misplaced expectations, on lost schooling, or missed work experience. But it is worth peeling back another layer to understand what is not being built that should be. The answer is essential skills.
The importance of essential skills
Essential skills are highly transferable skills such as teamwork and problem solving. They are vital for employers, employees, and jobseekers alike. They differ from technical skills, digital skills, and the basic skills of literacy and numeracy. They are needed by almost everyone to do almost every job. We define them as: speaking and listening; problem-solving and creativity; teamwork and leadership; and aiming high and staying positive.
Labour market and recruitment
According to McKinsey, essential skills are required by employers to redeploy talent internally. Recent research shows that these skills are associated with a wage premium of up to £5,900 a year, a 52% reduced likelihood of being out of education or employment, and increased life satisfaction.
The need for these skills has been long recognised – and they have long been seen as a gap since the CBI first called for them to be an essential part of a good education in 1989. But the pandemic removed some of the few remaining opportunities for them to be built through work experience, real-life interactions, and wider learning. It is clear that technical skills, knowledge or qualifications are insufficient without these essential skills.
What needs to happen
The challenge is not that employers are unaware of essential skills or their importance: 91% of managers cite essential skills as important for employment and productivity.
Nor is the problem that young people haven’t heard of these skills either. The problem is that they too often haven’t had the opportunity to build those skills in education – and then that they don’t get those opportunities in their first jobs either: 83% of workers want to build them at work yet only 14% mention having formal opportunities to do so. Katie Carr, Campaign Manager for Lifelong Learning and Skills at Business in the Community (BITC), says that most employers aren’t invested in essential skills despite the universal value of them: “There’s a big mismatch in how loudly businesses mention the need for essential skills and the action that they take to ensure that an individual’s essential skills are recognised and developed.”
How to champion essential skills
The first step for all employers is to deploy a shared language around essential skills: this is an area where terms and language can seem nebulous and inexact. Over the last two years, the Skills Builder Universal Framework for essential skills has done just that in partnership with 850 employers, education institutions and learning providers, including the CBI and CIPD.
The Framework helps to demystify those skills by breaking them into eight skills and then down into teachable, measurable steps for each. The skills go from vague to precise: do you want a “good team player” or someone who can defuse conflict, chair a meeting, or allocate resources to priorities? When you want a “problem solver”, is that someone who can follow instructions or someone who can create and manage a strategy?
For HR teams, embedding this Framework means more effective and transparent assessment, clearer job adverts, better feedback – and therefore a greatly increased chance of hiring the right person for the right role. Meanwhile, young applicants spend less time deciphering a job description to make high quality applications and prepare for interviews.
Over half of young people think their biggest barrier is a lack of work experience, and only 36% of young people in education have access to it – causing low self-confidence” – Milly Dawson, Movement to Work
Equally, employers need to include essential skills in their outreach and learning and development provision. This builds familiarity at all levels of seniority with essential skills and metrics for measuring them: they’re taught throughout education and work experience, assessed in recruitment, and developed further during staff training.
Young people then unlock and perform well in higher skilled, higher paid positions, while employers address their most pressing organisational challenges around recruitment and retention.
AKW Medi-Care Ltd, a leading provider of household mobility solutions, used the Skills Builder Framework to build essential skills into their recruitment. The approach has helped managers fill roles that were previously hard to fill.
Charlotte Treverton-Jones, HR manager at AKW, said: “It’s challenging to find the right people, and our specifications were very broad and generic, but we didn’t know how to improve them”. She added: “The Framework gave us a language to use and refer to, enabling us to recruit appropriately and build a more skilled workforce.”
The impact on young people
Building essential skills can be transformational for a young person. After Amber, 24, found herself on Universal Credit she joined a Kickstart position at Network Rail. She was supported with an essential skills programme and is now a full-time member of staff as a team organiser for senior management.
“I’ve come a long way. This was my first ‘real’ job in an office with professionals. Having the chance to build essential skills has played a big role in helping me develop other abilities, build my self-confidence and improve how I conduct myself,” said Amber.
“Without good transferable skills, I wouldn’t have been able to completely change careers, demonstrate my strengths, have someone take a chance on me and get into stable employment.
“Essential skills weren’t something my school focused on. It was all about university and they didn’t examine other options. I chose a non-university path and found it hard to get through doors, and it knocked my self-esteem to even promote the technical skills I had.
“I think young people are being failed by not getting the tools to succeed and go further in life and work. I was very lucky, this experience helped unlock my potential.”