ONS stats released last week reveal that the number of British 16-24 year olds in full-time education has more than doubled since 1984. (ONS March 2014). At the same time employers continue to bemoan the lack of work-readiness of those young people emerging from the formal education system. And most of them take the view that it's a problem to be owned and fixed by education. It's a line they have been pushing without success for decades and one they need to abandon. Two recent reports - CIPD's Industrial Strategy and the Future of Skills Policy (Mayhew and Keep, Feb 2014) and FSG/Shared Value Initiative's The New Role of Business in Global Education (2014) - offer employers and policy makers fresh ways of thinking about the problem. Though their analyses differ, the message boils down to the same thing: it's high time employers stopped pretending they care about employability and skills as a social problem and fess up to the fact that it's a business problem. Or opportunity more like because for Michael Porter, author of the FSG foreword:
"Shared value in education is not philanthropy or corporate responsibility .... it is a business approach that increases profits by improving the effectiveness of education systems at scale."
But few currently see it that way. The report paints a historical picture of employers sitting passively at the end of the talent pipeline, waiting for work-ready young people to be delivered to them. Instead, it argues, businesses need to be transforming this pipeline,
"by reimagining education as a dynamic ecosystem in which companies are fully engaged from cradle to career."
In this more enterprising scenario employers work pro-actively to redress emergent skills gaps, and do this not only in relation to the direct needs of their own organisations, but those of their suppliers and their future customers too. And in so doing, they simultaneously grow the skills of potential employees and build-in the prospect of further growth throughout their value chain.
Writing from a more narrow UK perspective Mayhew and Keep perceive a deeper structural issue, which impels them to look beyond a "cradle to career" solution. Yes, they, say, the apparatus for formal education and training is ineffective, but the problems are not:
"confined to deficiencies within the publicly funded system of initial education and training for young people. ... At least in part they have causal origins embedded within our distinctive conceptionof skill and occupations."
Where we might hope for a continuum in which learning is understood as an unbroken, lifelong undertaking, we find, instead, the worlds of learning and work spinning in separate orbits. And for Mayhew and Keep one aspect of work on which this has a particularly pernicious impact is "how well people are managed." If employers are to successfully reimagine the workplace, locating learning and its attendant in-house innovation at the very heart of their businesses, then the manger as coach and facilitator has a largely unfulfilled part to play. It's almost as though Senge had never put pen to paper.
In specific relation to talent, two additional issues render all of the above of pressing significance. One is that, as Francesca Froy of the OECD's Local Economic and Employment Development programme points out, careers and skills are increasingly horizontal, with employees coming and going at different points throughout their working lives. Rather than focusing resources on training a select number of new hires just to see them move on, wouldn't it make more sense for companies to work collaboratively to develop young people along the lines suggested by FSG? Well perhaps, but what if some employers choose to sit it out and poach the best? Well, here's the second thing:
In a recent article in the Independent Toby Peyton-Jones, head of HR at Siemens UK envisages a future in which, "four-generation workplaces become commonplace" and ponders whether the outcome will be, "inter-generational stress and culture clashes or ... a positive tension that will drive innovation?"
It looks as though younger employees have an appetite to adapt by learning from more senior staff. Research carried out by ILM/Ashridge Business School tells us that worldwide graduates want managers to coach or mentor them. However, while 75% managers think they are doing a good job of this, only a quarter of graduates concur. Indeed PwC found that 38% of millennials think senior managers don't relate to them. And it's not just managers. According to the CIPD's Managing Future Talent (2014):
"Some managers we've spoken to have told us that they've found some members of their teams can be concerned about the impact that the arrival of an inexperienced worker might have on the performance of the team. In some cases, they might also hold stereotypical views about young peoplemore generally."
So, the divide between education and work finds its echo in the divide between young and established workers. It seems optimistic to assume that as the number of workplace generations increases these divisions will heal organically. And if they do not, employers will risk demotivation, increased turnover and they will fail to capitalise on the full potential for in-house innovation and for growth.
One practical way forward would be for employers to invest in learning and development (L&D) programmes, which enable their employees to co-learn with young people. If young people are hungry to be coached but managers lack coaching skills, why not bring both parties together to learn from each other? If skilfully designed and facilitated, this approach would contribute to the young people's work-readiness, while challenging employees' and organisations' preconceptions and anxieties about the coming generation of workers. Young recruits could formally develop their communication and interpersonal skills through working with primary aged children; more established workers, could develop more advanced skills in mentoring and motivation by working with students closer to employment age. But let's be quite clear: this is not, as Michael Porter stressed, a matter or CSR or philanthropy. This is about creating shared value, about all parties achieving clearly articulated learning outcomes, outcomes designed to deliver specific individual, organisational and societal benefits.
How different things might look if as well publishing the numbers of 16-24 year-olds in full-time education, statisticians were able to share how many had participated in co-learning through L&D.