Despite pockets of new industry, school leavers in Rhondda Cynon Taff often struggle to find gainful employment. And now that the coal mines have gone, there is a compelling need to understand industry's expectations when competing in the jobs market.
The area's pioneering World of Work initiative has become part of a curriculum entitlement for years 7 to 11. When it began in 1998, just five of the local education authority's 19 comprehensive schools were involved. From this September, every one of them will be taking part.
Links between employers and schools have been brokered and co-ordinated by Mid-Glamorgan Education Business Partnership.
World of Work provides a systematic introduction to industry and commerce for all ages and abilities. One school involved from the start has been Porth Comprehensive.
"We found in the past that the same groups of pupils were becoming involved in visits and competitions - either the best or through a selection process," says the head, Steve Bow Each year group has various goals and assignments. For Year 7, these relate to attendance, punctuality, behaviour and meeting deadlines. Year 8s experience industrial visits and then complete worksheets for follow-up study.
Year 9 pupils take part in a technology challenge, a brief set by the school's link company. This becomes part of the technology curriculum and involves school visits by company staff.
At the year end, the best projects are exhibited. Year 10s focus on interview techniques and mock interviews, while Year 11s also concentrate on interviews and are expected to make their own way to the University of Glamorgan for mock job interviews.
The scale of the project is formidable - around 20,000 pupils and 100 employers are involved - but so are the social problems facing the Rhondda. "In one former mining village, there's 28 per cent male unemployment, 57.8 per cent female unemployment and 46 per cent of households have one parent ill," says Bowden.
But if jobs are thin on the ground, the more articulate and work-wise Rhondda pupils become, the better their chances will be - whether on their own doorstep or elsewhere.
The World of Work initiative reflects the Government' desire for young people to be groomed for a working environment, while the emphasis on technology is significant in an area where manufacturing is still the key.
The initiative depends a great deal on the commitment of employers such as Nigel Thomas, local managing director of the Danish packaging giant Danisco and a Valleys boy made good.
With decent A-levels in economics and geography, he could have gone to university. Instead, Thomas decided to join a local family packaging company as a trainee, made swift progress and finally led a management buyout. He, in turn, sold out to Danisco.
Entrepreneurs are probably born, not made, but World of Work endeavours to instil basic principles that will stand young people in good stead. "It's all about attitude and commitment," says Thomas.
Expectations of Year 7 pupils set the tone. They are expected to achieve 95 per cent school attendance and punctuality, high standards of behaviour and smartness, and abide by deadlines when completing homework and assignments. If they come up to scratch, they're awarded a Compact 7 certificate. Furthermore, they are expected to stick to these standards throughout their school life.
Compact 7 is rather more than just another piece of paper. "I won't be interviewing pupils for jobs unless they have it," says Thomas. "It tells me that they have the commitment. In the past, I've had Year 10s coming to me who didn't understand attendance and punctuality. We're looking for a long-term relationship between business and education."
Other employers involved in the scheme, such as Chubb Fire and Welsh Water, take the same firm line. In an area where good jobs are scarce, Thomas drums home the message when addressing pupils at school assembly.
His principal involvement is with Year 7 and with the technology projects of Year 9. "Some are very articulate and are producing presentations worthy of my management team," he says.
As with mentoring, the "quality time" dedicated to the pupils is showing its worth.
And there are two-way benefits. "The main thing for my business is that it gives me the chance to bring on a very young management team," says Thomas. "They get used to doing presentations at the school and this will help them when they come to deal with a customer."
Contact: Keith Gillard Education Business Partnerships, Mid-Glamorgan 01443 409174; or nationally EBP on 0151 236 0026.