Is Education Fit for the Workplace?

Recently I read an interesting article stating that six months after leaving education, little over half of graduates are in graduate-level jobs, and many of them are earning below the UK average wage. While the article was focused primarily on gender pay gaps and government policy, as an employer, I couldn’t help but wonder about the general suitability of a graduate education in the workplace.

Understandably, if you want to pursue careers in law, medicine and engineering, for example, then those degrees with their accompanying ‘hard’ skills (academic qualifications) are tailored very specifically for your chosen future profession. But just how suitably educated is the mainstream graduate population to seamlessly fit into the workplace? Indeed, debates and discussions are currently taking place over the ‘potential skills mismatch’ that has increased graduate numbers whilst simultaneously undermining productivity growth.

Taking into account the academic qualifications (‘hard skills’), what other skills are employers looking for when it comes to recruitment? According to a survey published in 2013, graduates lacked the essential ‘soft’ skills of communication, team work, punctuality and the ability to work under deadlines and pressure. Undoubtedly, this leads to the question as to where the responsibility lies in ensuring students are equipped with these necessary skills. Is it the employers, the universities or the students themselves? Or is it the responsibility of all three?

With the transition from college to full-time work posing a daunting experience for many graduates, how much work is required of an employer to ensure this smooth transition and to fully train and prepare graduates to be productive members of the workforce? More importantly, are employers ready and willing to put in the time and effort such a task requires?  Considering that a survey from 2014 found that 87 per cent of employers found it difficult to find suitable graduates to fill advertised positions because of this skills gap, perhaps employers might not have a choice. Indeed, research has shown that skills development, as well as opportunities for personal development and growth, are seen as top priority for graduates when searching for employment.

While it would appear that many employers are prepared, in some way, shape or form, to put the required time and effort in, they are not, however, prepared to pay graduates a premium as they transition from degree-waving student to productive employee. This begs the question of whether the responsibility does in fact truly lie with the employer. Maybe the Higher Education Sector in the UK should re-evaluate and reconsider what employers value in prospective new junior recruits and ensure that these employees have those skills.

One such solution would be to increase the opportunity in university courses for work/industrial placements as well as the facilitation of internships in order for students to learn, through real-life experiences, how to deal with challenging situations and customers.

However, it could be argued that the onus is on the students themselves to seek out these experiences in order to advance and set themselves apart from their contemporaries. Indeed, simply taking part in volunteering, extracurricular activities, sports and part-time jobs provides students with soft skills such as teamwork, customer service and time management. It could be argued that by setting the bar high, employers are challenging and pushing graduates to pursue a quest for self-improvement and skills that sets them apart from their competitors.

As the parent of Year 8 twin boys, I genuinely worry about the state of our current education system and whether it will be capable of delivering the workplace with work-ready graduates in a decade’s time. Even more worrisome is the prospect that employers will circumvent the problem entirely by enticing a work-ready labourforce from abroad, or displace the entry-level roles with Artificial Intelligence. How then will graduates even get on the employment ladder? Even more worryingly, a recent survey found that unpaid and low-paid post-college internships affected the long-term career and pay prospects of graduates mitigating the notion that graduates embarking on internships will be higher paid and more readily valued by employers.

Ironically with more degree-holders than Germany, Austria, Norway, Switzerland or Spain, and thus, on paper a world leader in skills, the UK is far from being the exemplar of a skilled nation, with 31 per cent of graduates employed in jobs that are not high-skilled or of a graduate level.

At this point of time, education and the skilled labourforce are at a crossroads, and for the UK to succeed now and post-Brexit, substantial and significant action must be taken.

By Adrian Harvey