Nora Senior, president of the British Chambers of Commerce, writes:
Today’s young people are tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and employees. One would think that point is obvious. Yet the proportion of those aged between 16 and 24 in work has barely budged over recent months, and youth unemployment still remains close to the one million mark.
It is no longer alarmist to say that this situation imperils Britain’s future prosperity, particularly at a time when there is a clear premium on skills and knowledge in a 21st-century economy.
Businesses are worried. Company chiefs, large and small, understand the value that young people can add to the workplace.
Over and over, however, they report both frustration and disbelief at the gap between the skills, experience and attitude they are looking for, and too many of the young job candidates they see.
The ‘system’ – successive governments and the educational establishment – has failed our young people by not ensuring that they are properly prepared for the world of work.
That is what the business community believes. But we’re not looking for someone to blame. Instead, we want to find constructive ways to break this cycle once and for all.
This is why today, the British Chambers of Commerce is publishing its Skills and Employment Manifesto, which recommends radical changes to the way we educate our young people and train our workforce.
We’re pushing for swift action from business, government and the education sector – before we fall further behind our competitors.
As an immediate step, we urge the government to introduce careers education from primary school onwards so that young people can start thinking about their future job opportunities from a much younger age.
Some may say children of this age are too young to be thinking about what they might want to do for a career when the time comes. Yet at present, pupils go through successive stages of the education system with no idea about what career paths might be relevant to them or what subjects to study.
When young people enter the workforce, they must have realistic expectations about entry level jobs, and the attitude, passion, skills and experience that employers are looking for.
It is also important that schools are assessed on the employability of their students and not just on exam results.
The education secretary must accept that it takes more than three good A-level grades to prosper in the real world, and that crucial skills such as good communication, time-keeping and discipline are equally important when preparing young people for their working lives.
Businesses do not expect the education system to produce 100 per cent fully-formed skilled workers.
They just want the strong foundation and discipline in place when looking to take on entry-level members of staff.
That means functional literacy, numeracy and computing skills. In today’s global world, it increasingly means strong knowledge of a foreign language too.
Much of the frustration reported by businesspeople exists because companies feel shut out of the education system.
For too long, teachers have been left to inspire and instil enterprise in their pupils, even when many lack direct experience of business themselves.
For that reason, local schools everywhere should welcome businesspeople with open arms.
Students must understand what opportunities are available to them and learn about the private sector, which is after all, the source of 90 per cent of new jobs.
Failure to address basic skills, employability and a clearer role for businesses in schools will have serious consequences for UK plc.
Employers who are unable to access the skills they need in their areas will lose business to other firms at home and abroad, putting us at a global disadvantage.
Skills will determine who wins and who loses in the "global race" that the Prime Minister often refers to, but sometimes business feels that the political and educational establishment still doesn’t focus on what local employers actually need.
As president of the British Chambers of Commerce, breaking down barriers between businesses, educational establishments and young people is one of my top priorities.
Chambers of Commerce across the UK are doing their bit by connecting those in the private sector with schools, colleges and universities, and helping firms find the right training by the right provider.
There are some excellent examples of best practice of schools, colleges and universities working closely with business, but there needs to be a consistent approach.
Government must lead the way and put an end to incessant tinkering of the system, and produce a single reform that links business and the education sector together once and for all.
Failure to act swiftly – and to implement the sorts of changes that deliver employer confidence in the educational system – would be a betrayal of young people and the businesses that want to employ them.