Addressing the skills gap through partnerships between education and business

This post was contributed by Elena Georgalla, Work Readiness Programme Officer at Birkbeck. Elena’s article follows the recent roundtable discussion (hosted by the college’s Careers and Employability team) which explored cross-industry perspectives on the skills gap and social mobility

Universities and businesses alike suffer from the skills gap. Working closer together can have transformative potential.

 

Mind The Gap Logo by rrward on DeviantArt

Mind The Gap Logo by rrward on DeviantArt

The perceived growing gulf between the skills and abilities the workforce offers today and the skills and abilities businesses consider crucial to their success – the so-called skills gap – is old news to the UK job market.  Although its severity and extent remain highly contested, often distorted by politically-loaded debates on immigration and Tier 2 Visas, the overwhelming consensus among employers is that there is a deficit in graduates’ ability to communicate effectively and to solve problems creatively, to think critically, to work collaboratively and to adapt to changing priorities.

Further to these “soft skill” shortages, businesses report that job seekers also lack the technical “hard” skills, associated with specific jobs, including, most alarmingly, key digital skills. The latter has given rise to a wide range of public and private sector initiatives to inspire more young people to take up STEM subjects. As universities and businesses alike are affected by the skills gap, joining forces could have a transformative potential.

Universities and employability

Education has been quick to receive the blame. Despite the UK’s massive expansion in university education – 2015 saw a record number of undergraduates admitted to British universities – no parallel increase in skills has occurred as a result. Universities are at a watershed; their perceived value is reducing as they are faced with challenges that are intensified by burdensome tuition fees and a policy shift that favours apprenticeships for school-leavers to recalibrate the apparent skills malaise.

At a recent roundtable discussion organised by Birkbeck, University of London, chaired by Prof Philip Powell, Pro-Vice Master for Innovation, senior decision makers and university recruitment managers from some of the UK’s largest graduate employers questioned the role of university education as a sufficient indicator of a candidate’s potential. More often than not, they would favour a strong track record of work experience over academic achievement.

Are universities then in danger of becoming redundant if the norm of a university degree being the golden ticket to employment no longer stands? Is work experience a better indicator of ability than an undergraduate degree let alone a postgraduate one? Should more school-leavers consider alternative routes to employment, such as well-remunerated apprenticeships with clear progression paths, rather than three or four years of study followed by many years of paying off student debts and no correlated career outcomes?

It’s time for universities and employers to come together.

Addressing the skills gap

A growing number of universities have been responding to these questions by establishing direct partnerships with businesses in a variety of ways to take direct action towards addressing the skills gap and at the same time avoiding the bleak scenario of the overqualified unemployed graduate.

Indeed, the best universities for graduate employment have one thing in common: strong employer presence on campus. This, in tandem with academic excellence and playing to the strengths of each institution, appears to be a good recipe for success. This was certainly the overwhelming view of our roundtable participants who admitted that, empirically, the most successful candidates come from universities that excel at building partnerships with employers, increasing employer presence on campus, embedding employability in the overall student experience, and crucially, working with businesses to design academic curricula.

Apprenticeships have a key part to play in this model; there is large scope for universities to work with employers to establish high quality degree apprenticeships that allow students to gain a university qualification and invaluable (paid) work experience. Birkbeck, being London’s original evening only university, is currently exploring a day-apprenticeship/evening-study model. Overall, as employers demand more from their graduates with the modern job market increasingly requiring employees to be forward-thinking, problem-solving and entrepreneurial, it is clear that constructive dialogue, ground-breaking initiatives and a common, mutually-reinforcing approach between universities and business is the best solution.

There is an abundance of case studies demonstrating the importance and success rate of such university-business synergies. But to be truly successful, such partnerships need to go beyond the usual talent scouting and guidance on dealing with interviews and over-demanding assessment centres. They also need to focus on issues that can bring about genuine long-term change: social mobility, diversity and dealing with the chronic lack of women in technology. Such a focus is to the advantage of both sides because failing to tackle these issues will only compound the skills gap if fewer people are able to meet their full potential. Whatever the relationship that universities and businesses build, it ought to be reciprocal, mutually-reinforcing, sustainable and must speak to the needs of both sides.

Work Readiness: J.P. Morgan case study

At Birkbeck, we partnered with J.P. Morgan to launch the Work Readiness Programme, an initiative targeted specifically at students from underrepresented backgrounds, which aims to enhance social mobility and promote diversity in the job market, specifically in technology. Birkbeck prides itself on the diversity of our student body and on our reputation as an inclusive institution. J.P. Morgan has identified work readiness and social mobility as their top community engagement priorities. At the same time, Birkbeck has a campus in East London home to J.P. Morgan’s largest UK operation.

The reasons to join forces are evident. Since its launch, the programme has been very well-received among students and employers alike. On the one hand, employers see the value the programme adds to their efforts to become more inclusive and diversify their workforce; it speaks to real needs. On the other hand, our students have benefitted immensely from interacting with employers on campus and creating their own informal networks, whilst it has given our Career Service the opportunity to veer away from dull traditional career support limited to CV checks and “I’m not sure what I would like to do” conversations. In addition, we are soon to announce a partnership with TechCity UK which aspires to bridge the digital skills gap.

A collaborative approach

University education has a key role to play in driving the success of UK business. But in order to remain relevant, institutions must adapt. Universities are discovering the importance of increasing their collaboration with businesses beyond applied academic research and into preparing graduates for the world of work.

This, of course, does not absolve employers from their responsibility to provide training and opportunities for up-skilling. As emphasised, collaborative approaches should bear something for both sides. Most crucially, both sides should be willing to break the mould and innovate. Ideally, such partnerships should be focused around creating flagship initiatives, with a clear manifesto, well-defined aims and objectives, a robust structure and a progression plan.

Equally, there are many areas that still remain to be explored. Employer engagement in education provision (course development and delivery) for example, is still in its infancy and there is a lot more to be understood and to be implemented. Degree apprenticeships are another area with great potential to transform not only the university experience but also how people progress from education into work.

Finally, the true potential of employer-education partnerships does not solely lie in their ability to nurture super-graduates who are client-friendly, critical thinkers and also experts in Excel, Python and Matlab; it rests in the recognition of the potential to create real societal change and opportunities for everyone.

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