25/07/2014 08:38 BST | Updated 24/09/2014 06:59 BST

Building the talent pool of the future

The end of the academic year is finally here and many school, college and university leavers will be waving goodbye to formal education for good. On the face of it their prospects are improving, with youth unemployment thankfully falling, but sadly we're still a long way from 'job done' when it comes to helping the next generation into the world of work.

It was demoralising to see The Times' report that "almost a quarter of graduate employers have complained of being unable to fill vacancies despite record numbers of school leavers going to university." Once again, a 'mismatch' between what graduates can offer and the knowledge and skills asked for by employers has been blamed.

As highlighted by research from McKinsey & Company, employers are often most dissatisfied with shortfalls in soft skills such as critical thinking, oral and written communication, negotiation and networking. The management consulting firm says that businesses and educators need to work together more closely and that young people need to be able to access a broader choice of programmes, not just through school and university education, but also vocational education, work readiness programmes and apprenticeships.

Another effective way to address the gap between education and employment, less well known, but recently highlighted in an essay by Vivian Hunt, UK Managing Partner at McKinsey & Company, is 'a year of service or voluntary activity.'

Giving a year is never going to be for every young person but for those who can commit, it's often life-changing. In the US, 18,000 18-25 year olds have served through charity City Year and young people in the UK are following suit, with nearly 400 completing a full-time volunteer service year since the programme launched here in 2010. Acting as role models, mentors and tutors, they've supported thousands of disadvantaged pupils across London and Birmingham to enjoy and do better at school and crucially these volunteers, known as corps members, have seen their own prospects improve as well.

In a new independent study of City Year's first three years in the UK, the Institute for Volunteering Research found that the charity played an important part in supporting corps members on their path to future employment. Leading sessions in front of a class, reliably being present during the whole school day, volunteering in a team and engaging with pupils with multiple needs led to improvements in public speaking, personal discipline, teamwork, leadership, resilience and other transferable skills - not to mention something to talk about in an interview!

While corps members spend Monday-Thursday in schools, Fridays are dedicated to sessions on their personal and professional development and corps member are also given a mentor to offer advice and guidance on career plans.

Sophie Horgan, who has just graduated from City Year London, was mentored by Mike Westcott, Global HR Director of National Grid. Sophie describes Mike as "invaluable", adding: "we went through my CV very thoroughly, making it as efficient and effective as possible. We practised interview skills and discussed the best ways to prepare for an interview and Mike also set up meetings for me with contacts of his in the industry I'm hoping to get into. I feel much more confident about how best to present myself to a potential new employer and I'm extremely grateful to him - I couldn't have asked for more from a mentor!"

Steve Holliday, CEO of National Grid, which supports City Year in the UK and US is a champion: "It's without doubt that our ability to hire the 21st century workforce will, in part, come from young minds active in and affected by programmes like City Year. Corps members offer us a strong pool of candidates - they've worked in teams, followed direction, acted professionally and demonstrated a willingness to work hard and create a result. They also have greater confidence and elevated communication skills; characteristics that any employer will jump at the chance of having." He adds that it's also "vital for businesses to play an active role in providing real insights into the breadth of opportunities available in the world of work."

City Year London alumnus, Rodney Williams, agrees: "Through City Year I got to meet people who worked at National Grid and benefitted from a '3D' perspective of a company I'd previously known little about. My mentor from National Grid supported my job application and after an amazing 12 months with City Year London, I started my career with the company. Completing my year of service was hard but hugely rewarding. I wouldn't be where I am today without City Year. I would urge every young person who is idealistic and concerned about real social change to think about joining the movement."

There's not much I can add to that except that I would also urge every business struggling to fill its graduate vacancies to volunteer to support our young volunteers and help build the talent pool of the future.

Sophie Livingstone, Chief Executive, City Year UK