By Ian Harper, CEO at ATG Training

Many businesses have changed dramatically during the recession, adapting to meet market needs, and many may be unrecognisable after the last three years. Talent and skills should also reflect these changes to be relevant to future demands. How has the education system adapted to meet market needs? Degrees have always had high value placed on them in the past, but how relevant are they now, for today’s business needs?

The subject of degrees has been a hot topic in the media recently, with fees rising, but whilst university certainly has its place in skills development, it is not the only route into employment. If we are to be successful in making sure we have people with the right skills ready to enter the workplace and reduce the level of debt and strain on the economy, we must look at what skills are required and ask ourselves whether a degree is really necessary to do the job. Failing to do this will not only let young people down, but as employers we will miss out on talent and may face future skills shortages.

An alternative to university is apprenticeship schemes, which will see increased interest following the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review. Individuals learn skills that are of instant use and value to an employer. In the past, the Government has focused its efforts on increasing university numbers, but is slowly realising that the focus now needs to encompass skills the economy so desperately needs.

Organisations at the forefront of this thinking include Oxford University, British Aerospace and GE Healthcare, where employees are trained whilst they work, equipping them with the skills required to do their job with minimum impact on productivity. Whilst these organisations still value and employ individuals who have been to university, they also recognise the value of on-the-job training and other routes into the workplace.

Recruiting people and supporting their training through apprenticeship schemes and HNC qualifications can offer real value to employers. Not only is it an effective means of filling skills gaps, but it also provides an opportunity for organisations to harness fresh new talent, develop skills in line with business needs and allow employees to put their training to practical use. This means that employers get real returns on investment from training and, in addition, it also helps with employee engagement and retention.

Vocational training schemes, including apprenticeships, are typically overlooked by businesses when considering how to develop staff, which is surprising considering that training is done whilst on the job (as opposed to off-site). Very often it is more cost-effective, relevant and of immediate use — much more so than academic study. For example, twelve people in a classroom being taught theoretical material will need time to decide how best to apply that education to the workplace, and then more time to apply it. When introducing a new recruit, they are not sent off-site to learn on their first day; so why change the formula for other skills training in the business?

There is also a much deeper issue which needs to be addressed though. Youth unemployment is rife and is partly due to schools and colleges not engaging with businesses to ensure that the talent they are producing is in line with business demands. Instead of businesses moaning about the quality and relevance of talent coming out of the education system, they should be setting the agenda and shaping the future of talent by actively engaging in conversations with the relevant institutions. Setting an example by encouraging young people to think of alternatives, such as on-the-job training, is just one method.

University is not suitable for half of the youth population. Degrees are of tremendous value to the right students in the right subjects but we are doing our industries’ and students’ futures a disservice if we push more and more school leavers into higher education simply to improve the UK’s position in arbitrary league tables and make us feel good about our education system. A truly outstanding education system embraces and promotes a variety of development paths, taking into consideration the current and potential needs of our economy as well as the maturity and learning speeds of its students.