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Opinion: 'Employability must be at the heart of education if we are to boost productivity'

The chief executive of the Association of Accounting Technicians says the importance of strong links between employment and education cannot be underestimated

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Strong results are, of course, the thing that parents, politicians, businesses, schools and young people seek and what teachers work diligently to provide. An academic education can give a variety of key skills, from numeracy and literacy to critical thinking, which will be of benefit for years to come.

Yet research by AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians) found that 80 per cent of young people said education had not prepared them for the world of work, and only 17 per cent felt that it had.

These results echo the findings of leading business bodies such as the CBI who in a survey of businesses, found that one third were not satisfied with the literacy and numeracy of school-leavers. More than half (61 per cent) said they were concerned about young people’s understanding of soft skills, such as resilience and self-management, and half felt that schools should do more to develop awareness of working life among young people aged 14-19.

Considering the time, money and effort invested into the education system, it is fundamental that one of the measures used to assess its efficacy is the ability to deliver a workforce that is capable and seen as competent by employers.

Academic qualifications alone are not enough to deliver this. Skills, linked to employability, are what employers say they focus on when recruiting. AAT’s research found just 22 per cent think qualifications are an important factor when considering who to hire with 88 per cent looking at a candidates’ skill sets instead. 

In the current employment climate, with little or no work experience, it is young people who are most at risk of long-term unemployment or underemployment. As recent graduates have discovered, having experience is often crucial to accessing employment. Thus an even stronger correlation between mainstream education and the job market must be created to lessen the barriers that young people can face when it comes to entering the labour market.

Listening to what employers within the accountancy and finance world want is an intrinsic part of our operation at the AAT. We regularly liaise with businesses and other stakeholders and incorporate their feedback into our qualifications. This means that students studying with us gain a qualification that is respected by employers for providing not only knowledge but also the required skills to do the job.

This direct link between employability and education can perhaps explain why those with a vocational qualifications fare better in the job market than those with degrees. AAT's research has found that those with a degree are more likely to be unemployed than those with vocational qualifications. 

Having a workforce whose skills are mismatched to the job market can lead to issues such as a higher rate of unemployment, which in turn could lead to less tax being generated. Alternately, if a candidate is found but there is a gap between their skills and the requirements of the job then time and money will have to be invested in training them up to the required standard This is a significant resource cost, particularly for the micro and small businesses that make up the majority of enterprises in the UK. The Centre for Economics and Business Research estimates that the UK skills shortage could cost £18 billion, at a time when the FE sector is feeling budget restrictions, this is a significant and unnecessary cost.

If the government is to achieve its goal of a more productive nation then a better link between our education system and employers is essential. The importance of this issue cannot be underestimated.

Work skills can be developed through learning. Literacy and high-level writing skills can be improved through English and the humanities. Soft skills – such as communication, motivation and time management – also need to be encouraged and again, academic subjects such as personal and social education can play a role in their development.  

In addition, students can earn vocational qualifications alongside their academic studies. AAT offers its level 3 accounting qualification to colleges and secondary schools across the country. Students are given the opportunity to learn the AAT qualification alongside their A-levels, gaining important practical skills, valued by employers that will boost their chances in the job market.

Our course is the only accounting qualification recognised by the government as one of its tech levels; high-value vocational courses, equivalent to A-levels, which will be included in performance tables from 2016.

This underlies the increasing recognition of the equal importance and benefit of studying vocational qualifications.  

The success of this scheme has meant that the AAT is now working with secondary schools across the UK. Being able to provide our experience and expertise in practical, work-based qualifications to secondary schools offers us the chance to share our aspiration to place employability at the heart of all learning.

It also offers an opportunity to meet our commitment to social mobility, as anyone, regardless of their prior education or qualification is eligible to pursue AAT’s qualifications and, from there, gain access to a rewarding and fulfilling career. And that, after all, is part of the end game – giving people the chance to have a satisfying and worthwhile career – no matter who they are or where they come from.

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