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Basic Skills Need Improvement

December 13 2011 - Graduate unemployment is at a record level but many organizations say they cannot find the right talent. Innovation expert Cris Beswick says that this is due to a failure to sow the seeds of business in youngsters early enough for it to shape their career development. He considers that organisations should radically change their approach to the skills shortage they face by taking a 'back to basics approach'with a focus on supporting development of business related skills during school or college years.

According to Cris Beswick:

"The current situation dictates that if your looking and can’t find what you need, the solution could be to look further back down the education line and to communicate with talent at a much younger age. This won’t necessarily fill the current gap but it will create pipelines for the future. Failing that organisations need to invest in training potential candidates so they are business ready. The academic community must also take some responsibility here to help prepare people to be more business savvy earlier on."

Believing that more emphasis should be placed on entrepreneur academies and more business teaching in schools he also argues that initiatives such as the ‘Tenner Tycoon’ lottery programme should be encouraged. The ‘Tenner Tycoon’ lottery programme gives entrepreneurial opportunities to school children while they are still in full time education.

Cris Beswick added:

"The role of education is ultimately to prepare young people for the world of business but the reality is we don’t actually teach them enough about the subject that for most will dominate 50% of their lives! Our education system is also absolutely fantastic at stifling creativity and we’re taught that there is ‘an’ answer not different possibilities. We’re taught conformity not imagination and we’re taught that that taking risks only really leads to making mistakes not learning. I would like nothing better than to see the UK back on top as one of the most creative, innovative and industrial countries in the world, but in order to achieve this, we need to put in the effort far earlier than we currently do.

The Three Rs

A CBI report published in 2006 claimed that one in three UK employers were forced to send staff for remedial training in basic English and maths skills to make up for the shortcomings of the educational system. The report, 'Working On The Three Rs', commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills, also shows that about one fifth of employers often found that non-graduate recruits of all ages have literacy or numeracy problems. 140 private sector organizations of different sizes contributed to the report, with two-thirds of the survey questionnaires being completed by HR-related managers.

A response from a catering company highlighted a 'total lack of knowledge of times tables' among staff, meaning that many were unable to carry out basic calculations such as adding VAT or adjusting sale prices. A car company training manager said: "Some people with GCSEs in maths and English can't get through our basic skills tests, which is worrying....people who fail have difficulties with basic reading and writing, fractions, multiplication and division."

Detailed definitions are provided of what it means to be numerate and literate. Top expectations are:

  • Numeracy:-
    • simple mental arithmetic without a calculator
    • ability to interpret data
    • competence in percentages
    • ability to calculate proportions
  • Literacy:-
    • written communication including legible handwriting
    • communicating information orally
    • understanding written instructions
    • correct grammar and spelling

While these skills should be produced by the education system business says that the current GCSE curriculum is not delivering. UK businesses have to pay for remedial training and suffer from low productivity, compared to competitors overseas where new recruits have higher functional skills. A manager from one of the UK's largest food retailers summed up a common view: "We don't feel that the current GCSEs, especially in maths, equip young adults with day-to-day skills in using numbers and problem-solving."

Last year only 54 per cent of GCSE students achieved a Grade C or above in mathematics while 60 per cent did so in English. A mere 45 per cent achieved both. As job opportunities for unskilled workers shrink from the present 3.4 million to a predicted 600,000 by 2020, this is particularly worrying.

Commenting on the report, CBI Director-General Richard Lambert said: "We must raise our game on basic skills in this country. The UK simply can't match the low labour costs of China and India. We have to compete on the basis of quality, and that means improving our skills base, starting with the very basics.

"Employers' views on numeracy and literacy are crystal clear: people need to be able to read and write fluently and to carry out basic mental arithmetic. Far too many school-leavers struggle with these essential life skills.

"The fact that one in three employers ran remedial courses for their staff in the last year is a sad indictment of how the education system has let young people down. Acknowledging the problem and commissioning this report are first steps but the Government must show a far greater sense of urgency and purpose if it is to deliver on its promise to sort this out."

The manufacturing and construction sectors reported the greatest numeracy and literacy problems. A construction firm's personnel manager said: "The standard of literacy shown by people filling in the double-sided application form for a trainee position is often very poor. Many applicants can't construct a sentence and their grammar, handwriting and spelling are awful." He added: "It's a delight when an application form is good."

Similarly, a building company HR manager highlighted problems with foremen who were unable to calculate how much material was need for a particular task: "Many don't have the skills to work out the areas of squares and rectangles, let alone other shapes."

Employees are often reluctant to ask for help with their literacy and numeracy problems. A personnel development manager at a business consultancy said: "People become very adept at hiding their lack of literacy and numeracy. For instance one employee used to ask his wife to write his reports for him in the evenings.

"Another very capable employee hid his dyslexia very effectively but it came to light when he refused to apply for promotion. After two hours discussion he finally said he could not write - the same individual now has a masters degree and is a champion for the 'skills for you' training."

The manager had been head teacher at two secondary schools and said: "A degree of creativity has been lost in secondary education, and with it the relevancy of learning that should prepare pupils for life. Schools should take into account the breadth of skills needed by school-leavers and make learning practical and relevant to their everyday situation.

"For example, pupils should be taught functional literacy and numeracy skills so that they can book a holiday, calculate 10 per cent off a sale item, or work out their pension contribution as a percentage of their salary."

The report also indicates that problems are not confined to school-leavers. The CBI's Employment Trends Survey 2006, to be published in September, shows that 23 per cent of employers were not satisfied with graduates' basic literacy and use of English, and 16 per cent were concerned about graduates' numeracy skills.



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