Technical skills need qualifications too…

My very first, post university, job was as a lecturer of Psychology. I worked evening at the local Further Education (FE) college teaching GCSE and A-level Psychology to adult returners who had either not got the qualifications in their youth, or decided they wanted more later on. The college was a well-known establishment in the seaside location, with a particularly strong focus on caring qualifications, engineering and professions like boat building.

Many of you will know that the FE sector was financially and directionally squeezed over many years, part of which (in my humble opinion) was an intellectual arrogance that aspirations should be greater for our young people. It is no surprise that the expansion of the Higher Education (HE) sector coincided with the diminishing of FE.

Fast forward 20 years and we are debating the lack of technical skills in the economy and the need to increase the focus on technical education. The Government announced, this weekend, the first colleges to be offering the new T-levels, to start in 2020. I’m hugely encouraged by this step and I genuinely believe these new qualifications could play a significant role in opening up career paths to young people. But only if business gets behind them.

In the coverage of the announcement, I was pretty disappointed to read the following quote from Professor Alan Smithers from the University of Buckingham, “Parents should be wary of encouraging their children to take them. It must be absolutely clear they will be of value to employers before kids risk their futures.”

One could easily fire the same warning to a whole host of A-levels and numerous degrees – the latter of which would cost you tens of thousands of pounds to obtain. It is also worryingly reminiscent of the early response to apprenticeships – who would want one of those?

Amidst the intellectual and class snobbery that will present in the objections to any type of “vocational training”, there lies a real and genuine challenge to employers. We need to embrace these new routes to qualifications and show not only do they lead to good quality jobs, but meaningful careers as well.

We can’t bemoan a skills gap and then ignore attempts to close it, we can’t worry about future technical needs and not embrace change. If you’re an employer of people then I suggest you have a good look at both the T-level qualifications and the routes to qualification through apprenticeship. At the end of the day, technical skills need qualifications too, and at the moment they are few and far between.

Are you sure you’re recruiting the best?

Its back to a favourite topic of mine, education. Last week parents up and down the land were waiting to hear which secondary schools their children had got in to. As any parent who has ever been through the process will tell you, it is full of uncertainty, angst and unpredictability.

And unfairness.

The socio-economic bias in the education is already well established at this point and based on your background, your educational outcomes are already being influenced. In a wonderful piece of research carried out last year, the Sutton Trust highlighted that,

“The top performing 500 comprehensive schools in England, based on GCSE attainment, continue to be highly socially selective, taking just 9.4% of pupils eligible for Free School Meals (FSM), just over half the rate of the average comprehensive (17.2%).”

There are a couple of factors at play, a fair amount of this (about half) is down to the catchment areas, with the same report highlighting that, “a typical house in the catchment area of a top 500 school costs £45,700 more than the average house in the same local authority” but the rest of it is simply down to social selection in admissions processes, “85% of schools in the top 500 admit fewer FSM pupils than live in their catchment area, with over a quarter having a gap of five percentage points or more.”

Let’s just take a moment to consider this. In order to get into the top 500 comprehensive schools you need to live within the catchment area, which is likely to mean that your parents are probably going to have to either earn more, or borrow more. And if that doesn’t apply and yet you still manage to live within the catchment area, if you’re eligible for free school meals you’re less likely to get a place, even living in catchment.

The reason behind this is the over indexing of schools which are in control of their own admissions policies, with voluntary converter academies, faith schools and single sex schools all over-represented in the top 500 schools.

“Faith schools are among the most socially selective group of top schools, more than three times as selective as non-faith schools, and make up 33.4% of the list. Converter academies admit the lowest rate of disadvantaged pupils of the main school types, and comprise 63% of the top schools, compared to just 40% of all secondaries.”

What does the mean in terms of educational outcomes? In a separate report the Education Policy Institute found that, “In 2016, disadvantaged pupils were on average 19.3 months behind their peers by the time they took their GCSEs – meaning they are falling behind by around 2 months each year over the course of secondary school.” Put simply, if you are a pupil from the least advantaged backgrounds your educational outcomes are nearly two years behind your peers when you get to take the first publicly recognisable qualifications.

Of course you don’t need me to tell you that this bias continues into A-levels and then to University, with the gap between those from lower socio-economic groups attending university widening even further over recent years.

Which begs the question, when you hire based on qualifications are you really sure you’re recruiting the best? Or just the luckiest?

References:

https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Selective-Comprehensives-2017.pdf

https://epi.org.uk/report/closing-the-gap/#

https://www.hesa.ac.uk/news/01-02-2018/widening-participation-summary

https://www.ucas.com/corporate/news-and-key-documents/news/applicants-uk-higher-education-down-5-uk-students-and-7-eu-students

Increasing the divide

A few years ago I was debating the issue of unpaid internships and the effect of this on social mobility.  The common theme at the time was that paying for internships would solve the problem. It was a compelling argument because of it’s simplicity, but fundamentally wrong.

One of the biggest issues with internships is the availability and transparency of opportunity. When opportunities are only available to those that are in the know, that are connected, or that are referred, paying rather than solving the problem of access just exacerbates it. This isn’t to say that internships should be unpaid, far from it, but that it needs to be combined with other systemic changes.

There is a similar argument to be played out in relation to university fees. The simple argument goes that by charging for university you restrict the number of entrants from lower social classes. Again, it is a compelling one. But one that isn’t backed up by data. Simply, there is nothing that would suggest that free education, without means testing, would do anything that subsidise the dominant middle classes.

In 2015, when the idea was mooted, a total cost of £10bn per annum was suggested to introduce this measure, equivalent to 11.5% of the UK education budget. Which begs the question what could be achieved by investing this money in primary and secondary education in areas with the lowest social mobility?

If you are an 18 year old in London and the South East you are more likely to go to university than if you are an 18 year old in any other part of the UK, by quite a significant margin. In fact, when you start to look at the entrants by parliamentary constituency, there is significant correlation with the areas of the greater social mobility highlighted by the Social Mobility Commission.

Assuming there is a finite amount of money available to government, the evidence clearly suggests that the best bet for improving social mobility is investment in the compulsory education system in those areas where the outcomes of young people are the lowest. That’s before we consider the alternative routes into the labour market other than university, such as apprenticeships.

The idea of free university is an appealing one, but unless significant changes are made to the education outcomes of those in the social mobility cold spots, it will do little to benefit social change. Instead, it will disproportionately benefit those who already have better outcomes and continue to widen the social divide.

Are you in A job or THE job?

Most of us in our careers will move between jobs and employers. We will spend time in roles that we love and roles that we need to do. The ability to recognise which type of role you’re doing, and why, is critical to being both successful and happy.

You’ll do “a job” for a number of different reasons. It might be necessity – needing to pay the bills put food on the table. It might be development – learning a new skill, getting sector or management experience. Or it might be more personal – the need to stretch or push yourself out of your comfort zone.

Doing a job is fine. It gets you where you need to be at the time that you need to be there, it provides a means to an end – as long as you know the end that you’re after. It only becomes a problem when you forget and confuse it with being “the job” and then it seems to lack something else.

By this I don’t mean that there is one perfect ideal role for all of us. For some that may be the case, for others there will be more than one. It really depends on your career, your drive and your desire. And of course, “the job” may not be a constant state over time – things change.

Working in “the job” has a higher level of fulfilment, it meets your needs on more than a functional level. It could be the people who you’re working with, the fit between your work and home. It might be the ability to do things that you’ve always wanted to do, or work in an industry that you’ve always wanted to be in.

When we look back over our careers, I bet we can all differentiate between the two. Sometimes it is harder to do so in the moment. So if you’re feeling downbeat or ill at ease with your current employment situation, ask yourself – is this a means to an end, or an end in itself? If you can be clear where you’re at, why you’re there and where you’re going next, the whole thing becomes a lot more tenable and clear.