A practical lesson for the future

19th January 2007 at 00:00
With school leavers entering the workplace lacking in important skills, employers are turning to the new EU states for labour and calling for radical changes in how subjects like computing and business are taught. Henry Hepburn reports

THE MIDGEATER is the most famous gadget to roll off the production line at Dundee's Texol Technical Solutions. The company said that by exterminating the infamous Scottish pest it is responsible for saving businesses thousands of pounds every year.

Less happily, according to Bill Lees, the operations manager, employable school leavers are becoming thin on the ground.

The company, which is also a provider of parts for petrol pumps, ATMs, door-entry systems and other metal-based products, takes on few school leavers these days.

It is a situation Mr Lees would like to change, but young people coming out of school at 16 and 17 do not possess the necessary skills, and training them up would be expensive. Instead, the company is looking at employing skilled workers from new EU states - attractive package arrangements are available that might even see a translator thrown in.

Mr Lees said there appeared to have been a shift in what pupils learned, with, for example, computer-aided design more commonly taught than elementary craftsmanship. "They are not learning the basic technical skills," he said. "They are not coming in and learning how to handle a piece of metal, drill it, put in countersinks."

John McAleenan, managing director of Scotsys, a Bellshill-based computer specialist, has ties with education and has trained thousands of teachers.

He has also provided many of the Apple Macs in Scottish schools. He said teachers were trying their best but felt the curriculum had not kept up with the needs of business.

He felt, for example, that the Higher Still qualifications in computing and business administration were too general: "I don't think they reflect what an office environment now does."

He said it would often be more useful for pupils to take courses designed by computing giants such as Microsoft, Apple or Cisco, but that the education sector appeared nervous about training that was overtly linked to specific private companies.

Mr McAleenan said an able pupil would be able to complete comprehensive training in Microsoft Office packages in two weeks, and would then be able to perform a role at Scotsys: "If somebody came to me and said they could use each Microsoft Office product, I could immediately put them to doing certain things, because the competency they have is measurable."

He said that when recruiting, skills such as using new media and the production of DVDs, CDs and podcasts were minimum requirements.

Dan McCluney is general manager of Montrose-based Electrical Power Engineering (Scotland), which works with power stations and on off-shore and marine projects. He said much of the company's work was suitable for people in their 20s and he would like to have more than the one apprentice taken on annually.

However, the average age of employees is nearer 50, as young people are being drawn towards mechanical engineering and software. Of those school leavers taken on, he said: "The hardest thing in the first year is getting people used to the world of work, to realise you have an individual responsibility to find the information.

"The plus side is that they are used to writing things down and keeping a written log of learning events and tasks. Written communication in a technical industry is important. We still see problems with grammar and constructing clear paragraphs and sentences."

Richard Stoops organises recruitment for Ravensby Glass Company in Broughty Ferry, which specialises in double-glazed units and also makes decorative glass. The company takes on about 20 relatively unskilled school leavers each year.

Mr Stoops left school in 1965 and said the skills of his peers were "infinitely better" than today's leavers. "In the main, they are unprepared," he said. "Numeracy and literacy skills are poor. That's a generalisation, but some application forms I see are horrific."

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