Does school REALLY prepare you for work?

Health & Education

As a graphic designer for Polestar, I use a great many of the things I was taught over the course of my eight years in Art education on a daily basis. The rarity and privilege of this situation is not lost on me, however. Many of my contemporaries are finding themselves in employment that is totally alien and are expected to hit the ground running at such a speed that they find themselves wondering if they missed more than a few key lessons in their schooling.

This feeling may not be completely baseless. PwC recently conducted a survey of 150 employers, asking them whether the UK education system was satisfactorily preparing young people for working life, and the results warrant some thought: only 50% of these employers felt that secondary schools were doing an adequate job, and a few more felt the same about higher education (54%).

I would hazard a guess that ever since formal education was first conceived, pupils have grumbled that what they’re being taught will surely be of no worldly use to them in later life. Interestingly though, the skills that employers identified as lacking are somewhat more basic and fundamental than one might expect. 45% of employers identified a lack of good communication skills in young people and graduates, and 51% saw a need for better personal skills such as time management.

Arguably, these are not things which one can simply furnish themselves within the course of a single seminar or tutorial; they take time to cultivate and fine-tune.

But upon whom does the onus fall when it comes to arming our pupils and students with knowledge that is profitable and useful? Certainly it is not on the students themselves who, though blessed with a great many strong opinions on how they are taught, cannot be expected to know how to supplement their education in the places it falls short. Nor is it, according to PwC’s Chief People Officer Laura Hinton, solely the responsibility of educators. She says: 

“Schools and colleges shouldn’t have to second guess the skills that employers need; the onus should partly be on employers to help shape the curriculum.”

Many vocational courses contain professional practice modules, but often even these are shown to be lacking in breadth and depth. I recently asked my brother how he felt about the college-based portions of his carpentry apprenticeship, and with the air of a man recalling a rather painful or embarrassing memory, he said the experience was like “being taught how to suck eggs by a man with only the vaguest awareness of what went on on modern building sites.”

Apprentices, of course, have the benefit of getting real on-the-job training from day one, but I think it is clear that in many cases there is a problematic gap between employers and the curriculum their future employees are being taught. Caitroina McCusker, PwC’s Education Lead, said:

“Employers have an important role in providing practical pathways from education into work. This can take many different forms, from investment in apprenticeships and partnering with local schools through to curriculum development. Other possibilities are the public sector and businesses planning together based on local labour markets, and co-developing programmes. Immersive programmes are an opportunity for young people to develop workplace skills, such as leadership and communication.”

Starting a new job is always nerve-wracking, but if we want the workforce of tomorrow to not only be more effective but also feel less cheated by their education and more confident in the skills they have, then the world of work must surely start making its voice heard more clearly in the often overly insulated world of education.

Pupils and students have shown incredible resilience in the last eighteen months but it’s not on them to set the curriculum.

By Robert Ham on 07/02/2022