The debate about whether school and college leavers arrive in the workplace with the skills employers need, has been ongoing for some time. Last year, The Independent reported that a poll had found just under half of school leavers felt unprepared for working life. And a report in People Management from December 2019 quotes HR leaders as frequently finding graduates lacking skills in leadership, negotiation, strategy and planning.
It seems both students and employers are generally in agreement. They are leaving their places of study lacking the fundamental “people” skills needed to thrive at work whatever their chosen profession. How to work well with others, how to persuade others, how to argue your position, how to negotiate, how to collaborate, how to lead and how to work as a team.
Most schools today, supplement their subject tuition with ‘life skills’ lessons. And in our challenging world, these quite rightly tend to focus on personal relationships, drugs and alcohol use, and increasingly mindfulness and stress management. Add in sessions on study skills, career options and further education advice, there’s little time left in the school week to fit in anything focused on employability.
As with so many areas of life, the pandemic has been a catalyst to more radically question the way our children are educated. Many are asking whether GCSEs, A levels and BTechs are fit for purpose for 2022 and beyond. So while we are asking these bigger, broader questions, perhaps we should also be considering what key interpersonal skills our children should have gained before they enter employment.
It’s interesting to note that schools often use psychometric profiling tools as an aid for students considering career options. While these can provide some useful indicators of work preference, it does suggest that there is still a tendency to equate personality type with job type. For example, if someone is scoring as outgoing and gregarious, they might be considered to be “a natural salesperson”.
But we would strongly argue that skills such as selling and negotiating can be taught to all personality types with positive results. In fact, confident and talkative people don’t always make the best salespeople as they may not be naturally strong at listening. Though of course, these too are skills that can be honed with learning.
Our recent work with sixth formers involved introducing them to negotiation principles. Much of the sessions involve the students practicing their skills on each other, while acting out a commonplace scenario. We are regularly astonished at the speed at which students improve their negotiation effectiveness during sessions such as these. No matter their initial level of confidence, or their personality type.
With this in mind, it was fascinating to hear last week’s BBC’s 2021 Reith Lecture series, delivered by Stuart Russell, Professor of Computer Science. In one of his lectures entitled “What will AI mean for the future of work?”, Professor Russell suggested that in a world where AI has taken on many rich and varied tasks currently carried out by people, tasks that require our uniquely human sensitivities will be harder to replicate by machine. Roles that need us to empathise as a person are hard to ‘teach’ to an algorithm. So perhaps, the types of people skills we listed at the beginning of this article are those that will become most valuable in an ever more AI dominated future.
Sounds like a stronger than ever case for bringing the teaching of these workplace skills into all our schools. It has the potential to deliver a stronger workforce. And it also maximises the opportunities of each and every student by bringing clarity of career direction, and the means to successfully secure their dream role.