How one-sided career advice is hampering Europe’s recovery

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

For many, traineeships and apprenticeships provide a first step from education to employment. But it is also a step taken relatively late, writes Chris Jones, as the real challenge is providing career advice to people before they enter the labour market.

Chris Jones is Chief Executive of City & Guilds, a global leader in skills education.

On Monday, the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (EPSCO) met to discuss the Quality Framework for Traineeships, amidst high levels of youth unemployment across Europe. As rightly stated by the Council Recommendation: ‘A smooth transition from education and employment is crucial for enhancing the chances of young people on the labour market’.

For many, traineeships and apprenticeships provide that first step; they provide young people with vital experience of the workplace, as well as helping them develop some of the key employability skills they need, such as communication and project management.

However, while the focus on traineeships and apprenticeships is certainly valuable, it only looks at one part of the picture. The training journey doesn’t start once someone is on a course, or has entered the workplace. It starts in schools, when people are figuring out what they want to do with their lives. It starts with careers advice and guidance.

As shown in the recent McKinsey report ‘Education to Employment: Getting Europe’s youth into work’, biased careers advice is all too prevalent; the majority of the 5300 surveyed said they felt a strong social bias against vocational routes. As a result, less than half of those who wanted to take the vocational route actually went through with it. In total, less than 25% said they received sufficient advice. Germany was the only exception.

The result of this situation is, sadly, all too clear: the average youth unemployment rate across the European Union currently stands at 23.5%, rising as high as 58% in Greece.

Careers advice is crying out for improvement in the UK. The City & Guilds Group asked 2000 young professionals (18-34 years old) about their experiences of careers advice at school. Unsurprisingly, almost half (44%) were encouraged to go to university – more than any other career path.

The research also highlighted concerning trends around the gender stereotypes pervading careers advice. For example, while 33% of men were encouraged to take an apprenticeship, just 17% of women received the same advice. The same pattern occurs when exploring the sectors people were encouraged to pursue; men were directed towards careers in IT and engineering, but for women it was nursing and teaching. How can we ever fill skills gaps if people are being actively deterred from pursuing careers in certain industries?

All of this evidence points to one thing – careers advice needs to change for good. It needs to be more engaging, motivating, and employer-led. It needs to make young people aware of all the opportunities open to them. And most importantly, it needs to inspire young people so they feel confident enough to take the route that’s right for them.

So what are the solutions? Firstly, we need to better equip teachers and parents with up to date information and resources on different career routes. They alone cannot be expected to know all of the options available to young people, or to have the capacity to deliver effective advice. We also need more peer-to-peer guidance and role models for young people. We have to wonder whether the myth that ‘university is best’ is something that is still being driven by parents, or those already in work. Even if their intentions are right, do they really understand what it’s like to start out in certain industries? Do they really know what it’s like to be an apprentice or a university student today? No. But young people who have experienced it do.

Finally, we need to see more employer engagement in the education system. Ultimately, employers are the ones who know what skills they need for their industries. So they need to work with schools to engage with young people directly. They need to take an active interest in guiding the curriculum so that it helps to fill the skills gaps they face. We’ve certainly seen some steps forward in this area in the UK around apprenticeships. For those countries that are still developing more formal employment systems, there’s a huge opportunity to get involved now and make employer engagement the norm.

Europe, and indeed the whole world, suffered enormously following the financial crash. Now economies are bouncing back and industries are booming, but young people are not feeling the effects of the recovery. Research from the World Economic Forum emphasises this: youth (15-24 year olds) make up 17% of the world’s population – but 40% of the global unemployment rate.

Monday’s discussion in the EU was an opportunity not just to make the experience of young trainees better, but to give all young people across Europe the right opportunities. We cannot afford to leave our young people – our workforce of the future – behind.