Last month Welsh Government launched an initiative to build on links between secondary schools and employers across Wales to improve the prospects of pupils. Here, Scott Waddington, the Wales Commissioner to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), explains why establishing such links could be key to closing the skills gap.
With latest figures predicting a nationwide skills shortfall, last month's announcement of a strategic partnership programme between schools and businesses in Wales was an encouraging sign that the education sector is recognising the need to connect more strongly with the needs of the economy.
In response the Welsh Government is funding 'Business Class', the formal name for the initiative, has which has been developed by Business In the Community (BITC) in affiliation with and will be delivered in partnership with Careers Wales. As well as boosting pupil's prospects, its aim is to build long-term partnerships that will contribute to the development of Wales' future workforce.
The scheme has huge potential in terms of establishing an infrastructure within which schools and businesses can work together, upskilling young people, building their confidence and steering them towards the skills and industries that will offer them quality jobs.
Such links could be instrumental in plugging the looming skills gaps that are predicted to appear in certain 'growth' sectors. Both the UKCES and the Welsh Government have highlighted the potential for skills gaps to grow significantly over the coming years if we fail to engage businesses with training. This could leave areas of the economy such as ICT, manufacturing and creative industries - to name a few - with a significant deficit of skilled workers.
Linking businesses directly with schools will allow them to prepare, influence and educate young people and get them to start planning their future careers in a more strategic way by marrying their own personal aspirations and aptitudes with local and regional economic needs so that they meet the demands of the economy and employers and maximise their chances of a rewarding career.
Too often young people plan their futures based purely on subjective factors without advice or without exploring what the real world opportunities are. That is not to say that they should set aside their general ambitions. On the contrary; they should research the market and plan their skill development in a way which is most likely to turn those ambitions into reality. The alternative may be frustration, as they find there is no proper outlet for their talents within the available jobs market.
The current skill demand means that we have to start recognising much earlier the skills that are going to be needed in the future. It should be the norm that young people are being supported into those jobs and career paths that are needed in the future. As such, young people should be taking into consideration jobs and sectors they may not have considered previously, many of which are highly skilled and well paid.
Strengthening links between businesses and schools is a great opportunity to target skills development directly which is imperative if we are to meet the challenge of the major changes within the economy, including the decline in the number of traditional semi-skilled jobs and the rise in the number of higher skilled jobs. Capitalising on these opportunities will require a different tactic, with the business needing to take clear leadership for the skills of their workforce whilst influencing the skills of the next generation.
Equally it is essential that educationalists play their part by setting objectives which focus on preparing young people for opportunities within emerging sectors - particularly higher skilled jobs within emerging and growth sectors - as opposed to setting benchmarks based largely or solely on exam results.
Happily, there are already some schools undertaking such responsibilities and making their advice to youngsters more market-focused; promoting both vocational and academic routes towards career goals. This new education-business programme offers an infrastructure to ensure this happens nationwide as standard practice - and in line with the needs of the local and regional economy.
Alongside this, it's important that employers recognise their own responsibility to take a lead in meeting the growing demand for more complex skills. That includes being willing to invest more of their own time and money in cultivating the skills their businesses need. In the case of small and medium-sized businesses, this should involve more joint working to train and upskill existing and new workers. Part of this responsibility means creating more apprenticeships and workplace learning opportunities, not only to give young people the chance to get a foot in the door in some of the key growth sectors but also to ensure skilled workers are in place to safeguard the survival of individual companies ahead of the skills shortfall.
Traditionally in Wales, Government has taken a strategic lead role in the promotion and funding of skills development for industry. I hope as time goes on we'll see industry taking more of a lead and working more closely with the education system to nurture the talent needed for future success.