Despite encouraging signs that the country is on the road to economic recovery there remains a huge skills shortage across the country and the Thames Valley is no exception. A survey of 91,000 employers by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills published in January found more than one in five vacancies last year were down to a lack of skills, and over a fifth (22%) of 146,200 vacancies were not filled as a result because of inadequate skills.
The newly published Thames Valley Skills, Education and Recruitment Survey commissioned by Reading College (part of Activate Learning) and Hays Specialist Recruitment to understand more about what employers are looking for when recruiting, what skills they need and attitudes to education, further revealed that nearly two thirds (60%) of companies in the region did not believe young people had the right skills for business. Over two thirds (68%) further believed that this could be improved by feeding education with industry requirements with well over half stated that this could be achieved by mentoring and vocational support and providing work-based opportunities for young people.
As a college it is our mission to strengthen our relationship between education and business to ensure we are able to best prepare out students for work. We recognise that getting a qualification is no longer enough, students have to have an edge and that is down to developing their employment skills through more engagement with industry as well as well as the college working much more closely with business to really understand what they need from us.
It is not just about teaching students the skills to do the job but also the softer skills that surround every job and I believe that aptitude and attitude is critical and this was born out in the survey where 73% of respondents stated that attitude was a key skill that they looked for when recruiting. When we talk about aptitude this is a readiness or quickness to learning, the ability to pick up responsibilities, take on new challenges, change direction at the drop of a hat and come up with ideas.
Today, we are working in an environment where everyone is multi-tasking and we have fewer staff undertaking a wider range of responsibilities and therefore need employees who have a willingness to learn new skills - all the time. In my experience, there has never been a time when young people have left school or college equipped with every skill needed for the world of work. Now however, we need to focus on developing work-ready young people with aptitude.
The college mission is that 'Our Students Go Further' and to do this they need to leave having developed the skills which will give them an advantage when heading into the job market. This has meant we are changing the way we teach, embrace technology, structure the curriculum and create opportunities for students. This has included creating more commercial environments such as learning companies, whereby students are employed in real commercial operations as part of their studies, e.g. at The Salon and The Kitchen, which bring students closer to the real responsibilities of employment.
This was recognised in our most recent Ofsted inspection, which found that "learners develop valuable employability skills" while at the college and that "staff have well developed, productive links with employers". Good quality work experience is invaluable to our students as they learn so much and is why nearly 900 students from the college participate in work placement schemes. This is four times what it was a couple of years ago. Going forward this needs to be even higher and I was delighted to see in the Thames Valley Skills Survey that virtually all (89%) of the respondents felt that affiliations between business and education bodies were beneficial to increase skills in the workforce and the vast majority of employers (80%) would use their local college to train staff in new skills. Businesses are investing in vocational training with around a third (34%) of companies in the region investing in apprenticeships with nearly a fifth (19%) in traineeships and 11% in NVQs, which is very encouraging, and this needs to increase as we drive towards more apprenticeship training.
By talking to businesses we are no longer making assumptions and as a result we have found that some curriculum units are not the highest priority from an employer perspective, and as a result the content has been changed, and we know this collaborative approach must continue.
One of the main reasons we commissioned the Thames Valley Skills Survey was so that we could understand more about what businesses in the region need from us and more importantly what they are looking for when recruiting. What we can say with confidence is that Reading College is definitely 'open for business' and working to create an integrated environment that involves all stakeholder groups on an ongoing basis - students, teachers and business.