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  /  Business   /  Got talent, need skills: the great expectations of businesses

Got talent, need skills: the great expectations of businesses

In England, approximately 50% of Year 13 students go on to university. They’re able to not just because they’ve made the grades (though offers are incredibly flexible these days) but increasingly because they can also afford to do so.

Last year, the IFS reported that students in England were likely to graduate with average debts of £51,000. At the same time, a leading graduate job board estimated the average starting salary for graduates was £21,000. That’s also the starting point from when an earning graduate has to pay back their loan (at a rate of 9% of any salary above the threshold of £21,000). So a graduate finding and staying in a job paying £40,000 pa (above the UK average salary) could take almost 30 years to pay off their debt of £51,000. THIRTY YEARS. A longer repayment period than the average mortgage.

Aside from is it worth it, the real question we should ask is are we at risk of universities becoming the preserve not just of those who may academically thrive, but of those who can only afford to incur enormous debt whilst doing so?

If only 50% of students are headed to university, then what about the potential of those who could achieve but can’t afford to?

If so, then this also raises further questions for employers facing a talent shortage. If only 50% of students are headed to university, and of those 50% the barriers to entry aren’t just an assessment of their intellect but also of pocket, then what about the potential of those who could achieve but can’t afford to? How do they continue to develop and how do businesses identify them and tap into their potential?

At the risk of then further marginalising the margin who can’t pay, employers who choose to use ‘graduate’ status as eligibility criterion to entry level roles must do so with care as this can exacerbate a perceived talent shortage. While I accept that a degree in medicine is required to ultimately pursue a career as a Surgeon, I’m not so quick to accept that one is required to pursue a career as Account Manager, Copywriter, Marketing Assistant or Field Sales Executive (four posts advertised in Brighton, at the time of writing, requiring a non-specific degree from applicants).

Graduate or not, employers are frequently citing a skills shortage and that young people lack the professional skills that are required in rapidly changing working environments. If employers don’t have a talent shortage, they still may find a skills shortage because neither employers or colleges/universities are owning the professional development gap that young people need to overcome in order to successfully make the transition from education to employment.

In addition to considering the other 50%, we absolutely need to mind the skills gap, both soft and hard. If employers are to invest in young talent in their organisations then it’s right that they share, not left wholly assuming, the burden of professional development for that talent (and professional development is more than just a training course …).

The last taboo

I recently had an animated conversation with a friend about the benefits of employing young talent. I went on and on (and on) about diversity, innovation, cost-effectiveness, succession planning, social responsibility as well as (and this was a personal gain) the benefits of reverse mentoring. She listened patiently, let me finish and then said “yeah, but let’s be honest, most people think that apprenticeships are what you do if you can’t get into university and employers don’t want 16/17/18-year-olds in their workforce because they’re not reliable and require too much hand-holding”.

I was dumbfounded, not by what she’d said but by the realisation that she’s probably representative of what most people really think (even if they don’t say it). When I suggested that if she replaced the terms ‘apprenticeship’/‘university’/‘young’ employees to, say, ‘black people’/‘white people’/‘older’ employees she’d be rightly called to account. I asked why she thought intellectual snobbery and youth ageism were acceptable — she conceded that they weren’t.

The very definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Most forms of prejudice are borne from ignorance, propaganda and bad experience or a combination of all three. From many employers’ perspectives of brand ‘youth’ and brand ‘apprenticeship’ each hold problems for exactly the reasons my friend was honest enough to vocalise. You don’t change this thinking unless you tackle the truth in it head on and start a conversation about what’s really going on. I want employers to start this conversation …

In my experience, some young people do apprenticeships because they can’t/don’t want to go to university. Also, some young people do degree apprenticeships at university (so it’s not always an either/or). Consider the fact that those who can’t go could be as much of a matter as wealth as of ability, and also the fact that a number of young people choose not to go to university for a range of valid reasons. A more interesting question I think is why we’re applying the stereotype of ‘can’t go’ to all those who don’t, and why we may think apprenticeships are second rate. Is this line of thought based on fact or assumption or fed experience or direct experience?

As an employer, I’ve worked with teenager employees, as well as those in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. Have I found the teens more unreliable and requiring more hand-holding than other employees (if the only variable is age)? Honestly, the answer is no more and no less.

With teens there is a soft and hard skills gap that needs to be addressed so that they can enter the workforce and be viewed by their employer and coworkers as young adults, rather than children. Young people at university are often living away from home, which helps to develop life skills and breeds confidence that their home-living peers may need to consciously develop using alternative means because without these they do risk becoming more of a burden on their employer than another junior new starter might. Whilst it may be reasonable for the employer to assume responsibility for helping to develop hard skills from scratch, it’s a commercial liability to expect them to assume the same responsibility for soft skill development from scratch.


Employers have the need for engaged, skilled talent who want to develop within and enhance their organisations. Young people, both graduates and those who choose an alternative pathway, deserve and want the opportunity of developing fulfilling careers (which isn’t the same thing as getting a job). With demand meeting supply, equilibrium should be achieved. But the demand (though there) isn’t being satisfied by the supply (also there), so what’s not working and why isn’t the status quo being changed for either party?

There’s an oft made-up and misattributed meme/#inspo quote that’s routinely thrown around: “the very definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. The quote may be a cliche but the sentiment isn’t. For young people, the way in which they are viewed, and prepared for, their future employers needs to change. For employers, the manner, and the timescale in which they are connected with future employees, needs to change. It’s a huge and terrifying prospect, but one that better serves our young people, our businesses and our communities.

It’s time to move the conversation beyond a conversation. We want to, tell me if you do too via caroline@furthermyfuture.com. I think the future’s bright if we can.



Caroline Walmsley will speak more on this topic at her Talent2018: Skills Summit talk, “How can we do more for emerging talent?”. 

About the author.

Caroline Walmsley, CEO & Co-Founder of Further My Future

Caroline Walmsley is the Co-Founder and CEO of Further My Future. A business designed to positively impact all the young people and enlightened employers who encounter it. Prior to establishing this organisation, she was the MD of both a publishing house and a learning technologies business, both of which were eventually sold to FTSE 250 organisations. Sounds grand doesn’t it? Rest assured she’s also asked her fair share of stupid questions, made a few mistakes and most recently had to be taught basic Trello skills in order to keep up with everyone in her workplace.