Students and graduates have been criticised recently for lacking important workplace skills when they apply for their first jobs. The Young Enterprise charity has surveyed 28 high-profile employers, including Kraft, HSBC, BT, General Electric, Cisco, Citi and Santander, three quarters of whom claimed that young people are leaving the education system unprepared for the world of work. Even business magnate Richard Branson waded into the debate when he posted the findings of the Young Enterprise research on Twitter, and asked his followers for their thoughts.
One of the respondents tweeted that "academic instruction is nothing without experience". But graduate employers, student services and charitable organisations all often overlook the opportunities for business education in the workplace most likely to be available to students: those found in a part-time job.
To ensure that young people leave education with the important skills that will help them in the world of work, Young Enterprise chairman, Ian Smith, has suggested introducing business education to the national curriculum. It's a fine idea, but classroom sessions would lack the practical learning element that can only be found in the workplace. Meanwhile, the National Union of Students (NUS) and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) have launched an employability skills guide, which offers students advice for gaining skills while studying through involvement in clubs and societies. But a simple guide isn't enough. One-to-one advice for students is desperately needed, and where better to develop your employability skills than in the workplace itself?
The abolition of student grants, the introduction of tuition fees, and the rising cost of living means that many more students are turning to part-time work to help see them through university, and to graduate with as little debt as possible. While many might view a part-time job in retail, behind a bar, or in promotions as completely unrelated to their future career aspirations, the reality is that you end up developing valuable skills. But, there's a danger that these skills could be forgotten when you begin tailoring a CV to a graduate job application - and they might be the very skills that would land you a role ahead of another candidate.
Although employers often don't consider student workers to be as valuable to them as full-time staff, by actively assessing students' roles and responsibilities, managers could do a lot more to help their career progression. Yet few of them give considered feedback, and there's currently no incentive for them to help their student employees in this way.
I'd like to see a charity like Young Enterprise, or other key supporters of graduates looking for jobs such as the NUS and the CBI, work with employers to educate students about how they are building up their employability skills - even in part time roles. If they could devise a checklist that corresponds to common positions, or that fits the roles available at individual firms, it would be a start. Student workers could then see examples of how the tasks they are doing can be used on their CV, or how those tasks might relate to the skills they'll need in the future.
So enough with the surveys and guidebooks - students would benefit far more from a personal approach to learning employability skills in the places they are already working.