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Great Expectations

By Caro Walmsley, June 11

I recently went to a professional event and was kindly introduced to one of the hosts as the Founder of my new co, a venture that I’m (you’d hope) hugely proud of and passionate about (in the most sincere rather than hyperbolic overuse-to-the-point-of-suggesting-indifference use of the term).

Following this intro, the host’s expression visibly flatlined before transitioning to hopeful (painful?) confusion. Our mutual friend, sensing she may have just served up what was being perceived as a cup of cold sick, then followed up with “you know, she used to run old co”. The mention of old co triggered recognition and some follow-up questions, we exchanged a few pleasantries and parted. Leaving me picking up the fragments of my shattered ego (and looking for the bar).

Professionally, it’s never ideal identifying (or having others identify you) most with the thing you last did rather than the thing you’re doing. Rather than an accolade of sorts, it suggests one of two things — a bit like the NRA card carrier proclaiming he’ll give you his gun when you pry it from his cold, dead hands — that you’re either desperately clinging on to something that’s no longer yours or that what you’re holding now is somehow inferior to what you were holding before. It’s the professional equivalent of Miss Haversham, and risks you’ll never fully realise the potential of the present opportunity, because you’re so perfectly prepared for, dressed for and defined by the past.

I thought about this a few times in the weeks since that meeting and I’ve been forced to consider it more as new co has gathered momentum and I’m increasingly asked what it does.

Being asked what your business does is great, but it also means your website probably could try harder (we’re on it). If you can’t encapsulate what it does clearly in under 20 seconds then you’re in trouble. You’ll risk losing the interest of whoever is asking and if you can’t simply communicate the answer, then who else could possibly do so? It’s pretty likely your team, customers and anyone else you encounter are left bubble-wrapped in confusion.

So, for those that want to know what new co does, it’s this:

A brilliant why-hasn’t-anyone-done-this-before(?) service for young people, employers and apprenticeship training providers. It creates better employment opportunities for young people, finds and nurtures better talent for employers and delivers better-matched candidates and businesses to training providers.

Before I lose you in a blah of I don’t care/I’m not interested/I’ve heard it all before, pause and let me help you consider why you might/you may be/you haven’t. If you know a teenager and/or if you run a business you’ll be interested. If Sinek wants us to start with why then let me start with why this really fucking matters. It’s a story of young people and businesses deserving better and a tarnished brand riding on a bandwagon of bullshit so big that even though everyone is vaguely aware of it, few know what it is and most aren’t sure of what they’re saying.

Got talent, need skills

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 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.

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 teenage 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.

Equilibrium

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 could better serve 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. I think the future’s bright if we can.

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