Why the Private Sector Must Support Education

If a company genuinely feels that young people are joining the workplace without the skills they need, then they should do something about it. Get into the schools. Who knows, you might even learn something.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother put a name to the stereotype. Suddenly the papers and lifestyle magazines were full of self-penned tiger mother confessionals; parents who unashamedly embraced high standards for their offspring and expected nothing less than an A* on every exam.

But between the tiger mothers (and fathers) at home, and the teachers at school, there is another educational sphere, just waiting to be tapped. The private sector urgently needs to involve itself more deeply with the children who in fifteen, ten, or five years' time, will be their employees - or perhaps, their bosses. Let us not forget that Mark Zuckerberg became CEO of Facebook at the tender age of 20.

In the UK, there should be a culture of 'tiger employers' - bosses who venture out of the boardroom and into the classroom to share their business acumen with schoolchildren. And by 'share', I don't mean long-winded PowerPoint presentations on how to calculate ROI or the risks associated with Asian stock markets - I mean teaching them about communication beyond the usual teacher-student dynamic, encouraging them to think positively about 'work' (that big, adult word), and getting them to experiment with their entrepreneurial skills. It's also about aspiration - not every child has one or two parents in work, and if your immediate world doesn't contain examples of employment, it can be hard to understand how to penetrate the shiny glass and chrome carapace of enterprise. Meeting and talking to someone who lives in that world de-mystifies the process.

Tiger employers, like tiger mothers, should expect results. The private sector is, after all, a sector where results mean everything. I've been a business mentor at a South London school, St Michael's College in Bermondsey, for two years now. Each year, I mentor a group of fifteen children in year 10, helping them set up and run a social enterprise. Last year, my group finished their 'fiscal year' with a profit of approaching £1,000 - more than many businesses today that are facing heavy losses. Fifty per cent of that profit goes to charity, and the rest is divided amongst the group. Needless to say, I'm extremely proud of the groups I've mentored, and as well as hopefully teaching them something, I've learnt a lot too. I've also offered work experience placements to two of the pupils after they voiced their interest, so at the age of fifteen, they have already had a taste of 'real work'.

For me, the benefit of teaching and mentoring in schools was immediately obvious. Every Friday, I'd leave the comfortable (and at times stressful) confines of the office and head into a world where alien passions ruled; for brands I'd never even heard of. My own work environment is not always the quietest place to be, but it's as hushed as an Eastbourne library compared to half an hour surrounded by fifteen opinionated pupils, all bursting with ideas and desperate to have those ideas heard. Through the mentoring process, getting to know the group as individuals over the course of the year, I learnt how young people operate and view the world. By knowing what matters to the generation who will be entering the workforce in a few years' time, employers gain a valuable perspective on how to run a business.

Stories emerge, on a regular basis, of disgruntled employers complaining that the latest generation of people entering the workplace lack basic skills, ranging from literacy and numeracy to old-fashioned concepts like working at a desk or arriving on time. Some of those complaints, on an individual level, may well be true. But I think complaints like these are symptomatic of a wider gap between employers and Gen Y - the fin de siècle children born as one century turned into another. Children who grow up playing on iPads and emailing their homework to teachers, learning on interactive white-boards and socialising via social media are not going to understand why they need to be at an 8.30am meeting in person if they have access to FaceTime. It's the employer's responsibility to create a working environment that not only contains new technologies, but uses them in the newest ways.

And if a company genuinely feels that young people are joining the workplace without the skills they need, then they should do something about it. Get into the schools. Who knows, you might even learn something.


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