Employability: Every student needs these 8 skills

To improve employability, we need to ensure all learners have essential skills like listening, speaking and problem solving, says this leader
12th November 2020, 5:17pm
John Holman


Employability: Every student needs these 8 skills

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With the pandemic magnifying trends that were already under way, the CBI's recently published Learning for Life report estimates that nine out of 10 UK employees will need to reskill by 2030. The robust college system envisaged by the College of the Future report from the Independent Commission on the College of the Future will be a critical part of meeting this demand. 

These changes are largely driven by automation, and it's worth reflecting on the skills that machines find hardest to replicate. You don't have to spend a lot of time scouring job adverts to spot what employers are consistently seeking in the people they are after - the essential skills that are valuable to any employer: listening, speaking, problem solving, creativity, staying positive, aiming high, leadership and teamwork.

Training for technical skills relating to specific occupations requires the responsive, well-funded college system envisaged by College of the Future. To provide these skills, employers and colleges need to design training programmes leading to relevant qualifications. For most occupations, such qualifications are a necessary requirement - but they may not be enough unless the employee also has essential skills.

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Essential skills such as teamwork and problem solving take longer to acquire, but employers value them highly. Such skills are often acquired and developed over a lifetime, and you can't teach something like teamwork in the same way that you can teach mathematics or design. Some people are fortunate enough to have opportunities through their home and school experiences to acquire such skills early in life, through activities that go on in class, such as group work, and outside the curriculum, such as sport or music. Many young people from fortunate homes also have activities outside school or college that will help them develop such skills, which last a lifetime.

A universal framework of essential skills

But many people start life with few opportunities to develop these vital skills, and perhaps they do not even realise how important they are to employability. This is why the idea of a Universal Framework of essential skills is so important. I'm prepared to bet that everyone reading this piece immediately recognises the importance of these skills, but we may all define them in slightly different ways. This is where a universal framework with a common vocabulary and a common measurement scale comes in.

For the past two years, I have chaired the Essential Skills Task Force, convened by the CIPD, whose members also include the Gatsby Foundation, CBI, Business in the Community, EY Foundation, the Careers & Enterprise Company and the Skills Builder Partnership. Our task has been to build a framework of essential skills that is robust, authoritative, measurable, and recognised by both business and education as the kind of transferable skills that make people highly employable.

We started with the Skills Builder framework, already widely used in education, and we recognised that to be truly universal we needed to test the Skills Builder framework with employers to assess how well the skills that it defines resonate with employers' expectations of the people they hire. The work was carried out in two stages: first came desk research to test Skills Builder against data about what employers look for when recruiting, and the expectations of training routes like apprenticeships. The second stage was to test Skills Builder in roundtables and interviews with employers from a range of sectors.

The result is the Skills Builder Universal Framework, a framework of eight skills, each defined at 15 levels, making it possible for recruiters, trainers and individuals to assess whether they have the skills defined in the framework. It is already in use in over 500 schools and colleges and we are now piloting the framework with trailblazer employers including Asda, Amey, Boots, Heathrow, KPMG and Tideway, who are using it in real situations involving recruitment, training and career development. They are showing the value that a common framework, speaking a common language, can bring to both employers and employees.

If everyone understands, not only the skills that make a lasting difference to their employability, but also how to measure them and what they need to do to improve them, we will move into a fairer and more equal world. This requires far greater collaboration with employers and across the education and skills system, to embed essential skills into learning, recruitment, and employment practices.

The College of the Future sets out an ambitious and strategic vision for the college systems across the UK's four nations. I hope that part of fulfilling that vision and meeting skills gaps will be the adoption of the Universal Framework of essential skills across all colleges, so that students and trainees, young and old, understand the language of essential skills and can continually improve them through their lifetime - and reap the benefits.

Sir John Holman is a senior education adviser to the Gatsby Foundation and chair of the Essential Skills Task Force

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