In further education, the past couple of years have been dominated by talk of a "gap" between the skills produced by the education and training system and those needed by employers.
The Employer Skills Survey 2013, from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, found that skills vacancies in England had nearly doubled since 2009, from 63,100 to 124,800 (bit.lyUKCESreport), while recent papers from the CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce insist that young people lack the skills they need for work.
CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, puts it even more bluntly, calling its recent report Employers Are From Mars, Young People Are From Venus (bit.lyReportJobs).
But while much of the debate has focused on what schools and colleges can do to improve their offer, there is a growing acceptance among employers that they must play their part. In November, a UKCES report said "urgent action" must be taken to improve skill levels in order to boost productivity, wages and social mobility (bit.lyGrowthReport).
A growing number of businesses are now starting to believe that, rather than simply demanding more of educators, they should take the lead in improving the skills of today's students in order to shape tomorrow's workforce. One company that has been increasingly keen to get involved in skills development is media giant Sky.
To mark its 25th anniversary in 2014, the company decided to set up the Sky Academy at its headquarters in Middlesex. The initiative aims to build skills, experience and confidence among young people. Sky set itself the lofty goal of offering 1 million opportunities for young people by 2020.
Graham McWilliam, group director for corporate affairs at Sky, explains that the reasons were twofold. "As a major growing business, attracting, developing and retaining talent is critical to our success in the long term," he says. "More broadly, it was clear to us that making sure young people are equipped with the right skills to have successful careers is a key preparation for society as a whole.
"There are clear skills gaps that need to be addressed and we firmly believed the nature of our business would give us a particular ability to address those."
At first the focus was on graduates and the specific issues Sky was facing around recruiting skilled software engineers. But the project was soon expanded to include school-leavers.
So far, 25,000 young people have passed through the academy's doors. Each has gained an insight into television and media production and - most importantly, according to Sky - developed skills such as communication, problem-solving, teamwork, self-discipline and confidence.
"Our experience as a major employer is that often we find those things surprisingly lacking in those who have come through the education system," McWilliam says. "They don't have the real-world, practical life skills that are critically important when they enter employment."
The art of communication
Sky soon realised there was a gap around the all-important 16-19 age range, when young people are starting to think seriously about their future, and so the academy's Careers Lab was born. Officially opened by Prince Charles before Christmas, it offers a full-day careers experience for groups of school or college students. Around 100 young people every week will take part in practical workplace challenges and learn about careers in media, technology and business.
The day starts with the students taking a survey of their interests and rating their attributes, choosing their strongest employability skills and identifying areas for improvement. This information is stored in a personal profile that can then be used on a CV, job application or personal statement.
Students are given hands-on experience of life at Sky, including working alongside staff. They also get to interview one of the company's senior leaders about the industry, as well as taking time to match their interests to a possible career.
"This is not about recruitment but using Sky as an example of the jobs you can do and the breadth of careers opportunities available," McWilliam says. "When we worked with teachers and students we found very few things where large numbers of students could come into a business.
"While it's very easy to get people from business to come into school, really bringing pupils out of themselves in a different environment makes a huge difference."
The experience is run by younger members of staff, many of whom are recent graduates. "We didn't want this to be 40-year-olds talking down to teens, but people who can speak to them on their level," McWilliam adds.
The project is free, although institutions have to pay their own travel costs. McWilliam says it is also flexible: "Schools can do work around the experience if they want to, but it works without follow-up too. We try not to be prescriptive about it, otherwise we would end up narrowing the experience."
Local schools have had a hand in developing the experience and the resources used. One of those is Lampton School in Hounslow, West London, whose assistant headteacher Jason Hermon says it is "fantastic" to see such a big business opening itself up for pupils and students.
A number of pupils from Lampton have already attended the Careers Lab, and Hermon says he has seen an instant improvement in their communication skills, as well as qualities such as resourcefulness, resilience and confidence. It has also become easier to explain to parents that university is not the only route after school, Hermon adds, because of the high-quality apprenticeships and other career routes on offer at Sky.
"You can discuss lots of theoretical stuff in the classroom but an experience like this will give students the opportunity to do things they will have to do later on [in life] in a real-world way," he says. "We do try to give pupils an interaction with someone with a job or skill set they might never have come across, but actually placing them in an environment where they can see those skills being used, develop their own and apply them straight away makes it very real."