What’s the issue with “Employer engagement”?

In the course of our travels through the world of careers, we’ve been asked many times about “Employer engagement”. As an employer what surprises me is the miscommunication between the two parties concerning this critical issue. I empathise with the difficulties facing both parties, but I’m left frustrated by the towering lack of innovation in this area.

To set the context, “Employer engagement” might be any interaction in which a pupil gets to meet an employer.

Meeting employers
Meeting employers

This could be listening to an employer give the morning assembly talk, or participation in a school-based business game, a careers fair or a period of work experience. The challenge always seems to be how to build enough of these interactions into the busy school timetable.

Writing as an employer, I don’t see many interactions that truly impress me. I witness lots of good intention, but only small pockets of excellence. One such pocket of excellence was when I heard pupils from Moor End Academy (Huddersfield) address a business meeting. In my opinion, the secret to their success was an ability to offer and fill activities after the end of the school day (employers would appreciate that detail, too).

Employers often gripe about work readiness, and despite there being some brilliant input from some employers, it’s an uncomfortable truth that many employers do not offer structured opportunities for students to engage with the world of work. The British Chambers of Commerce survey of 2014 reported that 88% of employers believe school leavers are not prepared for work, but 52% of firms do not offer work placements.

This sentiment was reinforced by a teacher in one of the local schools we’ve visited, who said: “It’s a bit disappointing that local employers don’t actively engage with school”. I was there alongside other employers for a day-long business game. Only a handful of employers were there, and less than half were from the private sector.

Of course teachers also have a different challenge when trying to motivate the “hard-to-motivate”. One teacher I have spoken to told me that they had arranged for a work placement for one pupil, only for that pupil to walk home after half a morning. The parents of that child then stated that their child shouldn’t be forced to do something they didn’t want to do (employer do not appreciate that kind of detail).

We think that both employers and schools (as well as Ofsted and the Government) need to work out what, precisely, they mean to achieve by engagement. It sounds great, and purposeful, but my experience suggests otherwise.

Whilst engagement is critical to the measurement of schools (Ofsted reports etc), it’s simply not as important for employers. For schools it’s all about measurable Outputs and Outcomes, for employers it’s probably only a CSR box to tick. Notwithstanding altruism and local civic pride, engagement at school level is probably of little consequence to most employers. Often it’s quite the opposite, it’s a bit of a pain in terms of cost and time. That’s a massive mismatch of objectives.

Of course, the logic goes that there’s a recruitment incentive for employers to engage. This might well be true of final year students, except for the fact that it’s so difficult to capture student attention in British Schools. The prevailing wind for final-year students (and by the way, it’s more like a tornado) is blowing one way – to further education.

We’ve written elsewhere about the problems some employers have had trying to attract attention to their recruitment campaigns.

The UK Political class (in the form of the education select committee, see questions 14 and 107 from January 2015 meeting) has received evidence of “obstruction” (for want of a better word) in the world of career planning. It seems weird to think schools might not act in the best interests of their pupils, but the evidence exists.

There have been examples in which providers of alternative career options (such as competing 6th Form providers, the Government’s own National Careers and National Apprenticeship services) are unable to get into some schools to introduce themselves. UK Schools are in some part funded and measured by how many pupils pass through their own 6th Form and then go onto University. If the Government can’t get a fair hearing in their own schools for their own alternative options, then there’s little prospect for employers who are happy to engage and talk about recruitment!

Certain survey headlines would suggest that engagement on behalf of employers is hard work and not necessarily worth the time investment. The reasons employers gave for not engaging (according to the BCC workforce survey) include the “costs and time” (25%) too much school admin (23%) and “lack of information” (22%)

We’ve tried to imagine what “too much school admin” means. Small Businesses have a history of complaining about red tape to Governments. I suspect that “too much school admin” refers to the various Health and Safety assessments, transport planning, insurance requirements that schools (sensibly) must insist on as part of their duty of care to their pupils. I wouldn’t want anyone cutting corners on these issues with my child’s safety, but they undoubtedly create an extra cost. Engagement is just too difficult to ever be universally popular.

I’m not sure that enough people have stopped to ask themselves the following question. “What value does a work placement actually have for the individual?”

Quick as a flash some people would say that work placements give an insight into the habit and discipline of work and that work placements allow an individual to fill a CV, and build exposure to a couple of different job types and industries. There’s even academic research to answer this:

“Young people who have four or more interactions with employers whilst at school are five times less likely to end up unemployed than young people who have not had these interactions with employers”

(Dr Anthony Mann, Director of Policy and Research, Education and Employers taskforce).

But does anyone ever research pupil satisfaction in hindsight? At the point of any placement, young people might be positive about these factors, but in real life getting employed can be difficult. How valuable do these individuals perceive any work experience to have been following the passage of any time? Does anyone ever ask? (No!) The expectations of someone who hasn’t passed through a process for the first time are easy to manage.

Young people leaving education today are likely to face many more different jobs and even careers than earlier generations. The traditional model of a few interactions and possibly a single week worth of work experience can never match the variety of career options that faces the generation who are still in school.

I do have a vested interest. I have researched this issue over 20 years and invested considerable time and effort in an alternative solution. I don’t think these problems are anywhere near as complicated or difficult as they are made out to be. In private moments I express surprise that the prospects of our future workforce are compromised by the outdated thinking of both teachers and employers.

In our opinion, employer based work experience is a weak model, based on outdated thinking with unnecessary costs. Even if enough money was found to get every pupil into four different employer organisations over two years, it would still fail to meet the demands of both employers and the individuals. Both parties are too busy being busy to innovate.

Too busy to innovate
Too busy to innovate

In the BBC Richard Dimbleby lecture (30th March 2015) Baroness Lane Fox berated the UK establishment for being too slow to understand and embrace the power of the digital world. I agree with that exact sentiment in relation to careers advice and the transition from education into employment.

We think the answer to the problems of employer engagement is delivered in the services we provide. To amend a well-known proverb, “Commit to the considerable logistical challenge and cost of organising a work placement for your child and you (possibly) feed them for a day, give that child a Bizenko subscription and you feed them for life.

To learn more, please contact us via the website, or at contact@bizenko.com.

By admin

Bizenko has been created by Nick Palmer to bridge the gap between education and employment. Basically, Nick was miffed when he graduated and didn't understand the commercial world, and once he'd learned a little bit more, he was miffed that the people he needed to employ didn't understand the commercial world. On a hunch that there were lots of people who didn't understand the commercial world, he devised a solution that would save willing participants the cost and heartache Nick incurred to resolve the problem. We hope you enjoy the service.