Skip to main content

Ways into work

In the first of a three-page special report on careers and industry links, Christopher Ball argues that the challenge is to maximise employability rather than dream of jobs for all.

Where have all the good jobs gone? Half a century ago there seemed to be work for everybody, almost regardless of educational attainment. You could afford to be choosy. Not so now. Even graduates are finding it difficult to secure paid employment. Although long-term graduate unemployment is rare, the average gap between graduation and employment has widened significantly. Does this mean that many new graduates are not yet ready for work?

Achieving employability or work-readiness - what the Americans call "the fourth R" - has become a more demanding challenge during the second half of the 20th century. It will probably become more demanding still in the 21st century. My generation could leave school at 15 or 16 with equivalent of level 2 learning of the new National Targets for Education and Training (GCE O-levels, now GCSE) - though even this was not really necessary - and find good enough jobs. Today, our children need at least level 3 (GNVQ 3 or A-levels); our grandchildren will probably need to be graduates (level 4). The level of learning required for employment is rising. So is the age. And many adults who thought themselves employable have been swept out of work by this rising tide.

We know, of course, why this has happened. It is not only because women have entered the workforce. Technological progress and global competition also tend to raise the quality and lower the price of employment. They create mobility of both work and workforce. And they render national governments incapable of sustaining policies of full employment. The evidence is all around us. The new house next door has slates from Portugal: Welsh slates are more expensive and take longer to deliver. What can Mr Major or Mr Blair do about this? Clearly we must all learn to work smarter, or cheaper, or both, or not expect to work at all.

If you want to be employable today, you must not only achieve, but also sustain work-readiness. I think the fourth R has four elements: level of learning (currently, level 3 - and rising), quality of learning (the core and transferable skills implied in the formulation: "self-reliance, flexibility and breadth"), the habit of learning (continuing education and training), and mobility (readiness to move to where the work is, if it doesn't come to you, the Auf Wiedersehen Pet factor). Those who can truly claim to be "work-ready" in this sense will not long remain unemployed. But employability (so defined) is no easy target: the quality of learning required, in particular, is both hard to reach and difficult to maintain. People who are not competent in communication, numeracy and IT are not work-ready. Those who are illiterate are, strictly speaking, unemployable.

That is one reason why the new National Targets for Education and Training are so important and timely. They aim to create a workforce 60 per cent work-ready by the year 2000. They emphasise the need to raise our levels of learning, to develop the core and transferable skills, and to practise lifelong learning. Good guidance for learning and work delivers the same message. The new National Guidance Council, a Royal Society of ArtsConfederation of British Industry organisation, will seek to define the range of outcomes individuals should expect from good guidance. What students, and people in and out of work, want and need from the experience of guidance is the means to acquire and retain the fundamental qualities of readiness for work. Good guidance delivers the fourth R.

As the political parties jockey for position in the run-up to the next election, they are spoiling for a fight over the idea of a statutory minimum wage. Labour favours the idea; the Tories are against it. I think they are both wrong. What is needed is a minimum wage linked to work-readiness. Only those who could demonstrate the achievement of the fourth R would qualify for the national minimum wage. Such an arrangement would create a powerful incentive for personal learning and motivate people to achieve employability for themselves. But it would be difficult - though not impossible - to administer.

The Labour market is indeed a market - a global market, no longer respecting national boundaries. Mrs Thatcher was right when she said that you can't buck the market in the long run. Some people talk as if there is a fixed quantum of employment in the world, implying that the competitive challenge for the United Kingdom is to improve the skills of the workforce so as to export unemployment. Others - and this is my view - believe that a work-ready workforce actually creates extra jobs through successful self-employment and new small businesses.

In either case, the challenge for the UK is to develop 100 per cent employability, rather than dream about policies of full employment. The bad news is that governments can't do a lot to help: the good news is that people can help themselves to be work-ready.

Sir Christopher Ball is Director of Learning at the RSA and Chairman of the National Advisory Council for Careers and Educational Guidance. He is one of the principal speakers at the Directions for the 21st Century conference at Directions 95 - The Schools' Fair (see below) oInformation on the National Guidance Council from Lesley James, RSA, 8 John Adam Street, London WC2N 6EZ

National Targets for Education and Training


To improve the UK's international competitiveness by raising standards and attainment levels in education and training to world class levels through ensuring that: 1 All employers invest in employee development to achieve business success 2 All individuals have access to education and training opportunities, leading to recognised qualifications, which meet their needs and aspirations 3 All education and training develops self-reliance, flexibility and breadth, in particular through fostering competence in core skills Targets for 2000


1 By age 19, 85 per cent of young people to achieve 5 GCSEs at grade C or above, or intermediate GNVQ or an NVQ level 2 2 75 per cent of young people to achieve level 2 competence in communications, numeracy and IT by age 19; and 35 per cent to achieve level 3 competence in these core skills by age 21 3 By age 21, 60 per cent of young people to achieve 2 GCE A-levels, an Advanced GNVQ or an NVQ level 3 LIFETIME LEARNING

1 60 per cent of the workforce to be qualified to NVQ level 3, Advanced GNVQ or 2 GCE A-level standard 2 30 per cent of the workforce to have a vocational, professional, management or academic qualification at NVQ level 4 or above 3 70 per cent of all organisations employing 200 or more employees, and 35 per cent of those employing 50 or more, to be recognised as Investors in People * A pack outlining the National Targets for Education and Training is available from NACETT, co RSA, 7th Floor, 222 Gray's Inn Road London WC1X 8HL

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you