The Blog

The End of the Academic Year Is Upon Us - With Both Students and Business Facing the Same Choices About 'Investing' in Future Capabilities

Across the country, tens of thousands of students are getting ready for the end of the academic year - and facing one of the most crucial decisions of their lives: that of their future career paths soon to be made.

Prospective graduates will only be too aware of the 'horror stories' circulating about the struggles of finding that first job, which also means that for the younger students, pressure mounts between choosing whether to stay on for higher qualifications, or to go out into the world of work and learn from the wider university of life.

And just as students opt possibly to leave the classroom for the last time, I believe that those of us in industry need to realise how serious our own investment choices may be, both for the businesses we lead and even our country.

For we all need to be clear: CEOs are required to make big decisions with regard to the future of the next generation. As I have said before there is no room for complacency when it comes to commitment to the long-term sustainable prosperity of our society, its young people and the UK's place in the global economy.

In essence, it is about paying today for a return tomorrow. For the last few decades, we've taken returns today by borrowing against tomorrow, and the demographics of some of those choices have started to present their bills.

On the face of it, Britain is returning to good times. The most recent monthly unemployment figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) saw more people returning to work. Unemployment dropped to a five-year low of 2.16 million: within that, the number of unemployed 16 to 24-year-olds fell by 16,000 to 868,000 - again, the lowest figure for five years, and a decrease to be welcomed.

But let's make that number more real: that figure for youth unemployment is equivalent to the entire population of Liverpool and Manchester - every man, woman and child - being out of work. And not just out of work, but not going to be able, ever, to contribute to capability which industry will be crying out for in years to come. The equivalent of two lost cities.

It's a sobering thought. Kevin Green, chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, recently noted that although recruiters continue to place more people in work as the economy accelerates, thousands of employers potentially may not able to find the skills that they need to meet increasing demand - and above all, to compete against nations such as China, India and Germany.

In particular I believe engineering, science and technology have been overlooked in the UK in the past decade. Engineering skills are all about problem solving and thus innovation. Innovation leads to growth, which in turns leads to prosperity. The shortage of technicians, engineers and scientists coming through means less UK-originated intellectual property and hence fewer UK-designed products, less chance of renewing our manufacturing base, loss of export opportunities which results in a stubbornly high deficit requiring on-going spending cuts.

This last recession was one of the longest and deepest in living memory - yet commentators repeatedly pointed out that employment held up surprisingly in contrast to other downturns. Why? I think it's because, as every industrialist knows, we already have a shortage of skilled workers in this country. Now that businesses are emerging from recessionary woes and are planning for the future, chief executives and managing directors need to hire - but face a skills gap.

The answer is, we must "recruit to train". This is the biggest investment we can make and if both "supply" and "demand" sides join hands, we can change the UK's future prosperity.

In the world of education, the University of Sheffield is one organisation helping to lead the way with a £400,000 scheme to "push" career pathways for technicians. The launch of the scheme - which has been funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) - comes after a recent study showed that 1.5 million Science, Engineering and Technology job vacancies will be created across the country by 2020, with nearly a third of these in the higher skilled technician roles needed by employers to compete on a global scale.

Work is going on in industry too. Last October (coinciding with the start of the academic year, by coincidence) several companies - QinetiQ, Babcock, Atkins, Airbus Group, Renishaw and MBDA - became the founder members of an industry-led campaign called The 5% Club, designed to raise levels of apprentices, graduates and sponsored students across UK industry. The 5% Club wants to rally businesses to tackle two key goals: reduce youth unemployment in this country and tackle our desperate need for skills.

Members of The 5% Club commit to a simple, sensible target - aspiring to having a minimum of 5% of their employees as apprentices and graduates in formal training schemes and, most importantly, making a public declaration of their progress in, for example, their annual reports.

At QinetiQ, we have just achieved 4.78% and our goal is to reach 5% by next year. The demand for apprentice and graduate places is clearly there: we recently received over 20 applications for every available training position.

Today's youth is the engine for tomorrow's industrial growth. The 5% Club is focused on creating momentum behind the recruitment and training of young people across all sectors, including accounting, engineering and law. Recent additions to our membership include businesses as diverse as Redrow Homes, KPMG, Balfour Beatty and Thales. Our numbers are growing all the time and our aim is to get as many companies in the UK to sign up as possible.

I urge all companies - large and small - to make the logical, socially responsible decision to invest in training up our future generations. It is this that will ensure the UK's place competing in the global markets: it is this that will ensure domestic, financial and social stability in the years to come.

Leo Quinn is CEO of QinetiQ Group plc, a founding member of The 5% Club.