By Claire West

As thousands of A-level and GCSE students prepare to choose between continuing their educations and getting jobs, the Forum of Private Business (FPB) is announcing the results of research indicating that the education system is not meeting the recruitment needs of owners of small businesses.
More students involved in further education (FE) are passing their exams, but, despite a record number of A-level ‘A’ grades in 2008, the FPB’s members are reporting that too few school- and college-leavers with the skills and attributes they require are entering the job market. The FPB’s research indicates that around three-quarters of a million small businesses have had to recruit individuals with fewer skills than they had hoped for, before training them up.

"There is a clear gap between what businesses need and what businesses get when it comes to the ability of the education system to produce viable employees for small businesses," said Phil Orford, the FPB's Chief Executive. "The results of the FPB’s research prove that our members have issues when it comes to finding employees with basic attributes such as communication, numeracy and literacy, as well as more developed and specific skills that are required by individual businesses. The FPB hopes the Government takes note of what we have found and acts on our proposals."

Basic skills valued by employers are literacy, numeracy, English language communication and basic ICT skills, such as using email. However, the FPB’s analysis indicates that, while small businesses consider the current labour force to have ‘good’ or ‘very good’ skills, it is considered to be ‘average’ by 68% of small business employers, and 18% of small businesses feel that labour force skills are ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.

Job-specific abilities valued by employers, according to the survey, include customer service, sales and marketing skills, with 17.9% deeming these to be ‘crucial’, 42.9% ‘important’ and 19.6% ‘useful’, along with specialist ITC skills (59.9% ‘important’ or ‘useful’). Awareness of health and safety is seen as another key attribute when recruiting staff (23.2% ‘crucial’, 27.7% ‘important’ and 32.1% ‘useful’). Craft skills are also valued, with 51.8% considering them ‘crucial’, ‘important’ or ‘useful’. In addition, 23.3% deemed knowledge of specific health and safety practices to be ‘crucial’, 27.7% ‘important’ and 32.1% ‘useful’. However, only 11% gave the labour market top marks for meeting these needs, saying it was ‘very good’, with 16% believing it to be ‘good’, compared to 45% who stated the skills base was ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.
Of the employability attributes deemed to be ‘crucial’, a willingness to learn is the most important (57.1%), followed by a work ethic and professional approach (42.9%), and team working (25.9%). Interpersonal skills are also key, with 19.6% considering them to be ‘crucial’ and 60.7% ‘important’. However 15% believe the current labour market is not providing workers who have these attributes.

The majority of the small businesses surveyed value school- and college-leavers over graduates and postgraduates. Just 11% seek out graduates or postgraduates when recruiting, but almost double (20%) prefer younger employees, fresh from school or college. In addition, 77.4% of small-business employers do not require employees with ‘university’ skills, while 35.5% want people with technical and craft skills that are not provided by universities.

According to the survey, 18% of business-owners believe that the labour market available to them is ‘very poor’ or ‘poor’ in providing employees with ‘higher-level’ attributes, such as foreign language skills, critical thinking and graduate-level science, technology, engineering and maths. In contrast, 15% believe that the skills levels of graduates are ‘good’ or ‘very good’. In all, 68% of the small businesses employing graduates feel that their skills levels are ‘average’.

The provision of training is another key concern of business-owners, according to entrepreneurs who took part in the survey. When selecting a training provider, the factors influencing their decision are:

• Having a single point of contact

• Minimal time to arrange courses

• Flexible training times

• Proximity to the business

• Competency in the skills that the training has been sourced to provide

• The amount of time staff have to take off to train

• The likelihood of the firm’s financial position being strengthened by the training

• Qualifications related to the required skills

• Further support once the training has been completed.

Just 9.1% of business-owners are ‘very familiar’ with business skills and training offered locally, with 37.8% knowing about some provision, and 21.7% ‘not very familiar’. Other barriers to training staff include a lack of local provision, the unavailability of specific courses, a lack of time to find a relevant course and the cost of training. The research indicates that 57.1% of small-business employers believe training should be provided locally, with 28.6% preferring on-the-job training.

Just 7% believe that the Government’s skills policy offers value for money. The FPB, which is lobbying for the better provision of workplace skills as part of its campaign to ‘promote business growth’, has responded to the Government’s consultation on the proposed Higher Education at Work — High Skills: High Value Bill. The FPB is calling for the UK’s education system to be streamlined in order to improve relationships between businesses and educational institutions, and wants a single point of contact for information on education and training.

FPB member Elisabeth Wirrer, of Roy Truman Sound Services in London, found only a handful of courses catering for the sound industry. She prefers her trainees to learn on the job, and welcomed the introduction of modern apprenticeships.

"When people come and ask me how they get into the industry, I tell them to go and get a job first, and then do a course from that," she said. "I understand that they are going back to teaching skills for work, but so many of these students can't even spell, and don't get the training they need to be successful at interview."