Are your students employable?

Written by: Duncan Cheatle | Published:
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16 year olds should not be allowed to leave full time education until they have passed a "School ...

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Employer and employability expert Duncan Cheatle says businesses increasingly want to see skills, such as ‘the right attitude’, ahead of academic results. He considers the role of schools in developing these

Are you confidently preparing your students for their 10,000-plus days of working life? That is, preparation that reaches beyond academic qualifications.

Are they happily gathering the workplace-related skills, qualities and attitudes that their future employers will expect?

It is never too early to start managing their expectations. The “Big Four” accounting firms, the largest graduate recruiters after Teach First, are increasingly hiring at 18-plus and prioritising intangible skills over academic results in their selection process.

The message is consistent from smaller businesses too. The number one thing I hear CEOs of fast-growth businesses say they seek, apart from reasonable literacy and numeracy, is the “right attitude”.

They want to see resilience, analytical and problem-solving skills and the ability to communicate clearly and to work with others. They also want to see evidence of these in practice!

So this begs the question: are we pointing teenagers towards the type of experiences that bring these qualities to life and highlight where they need to pay more attention?

Do our students each know what sets them apart as individuals and are they able to articulate their “story” and what they have to offer in a way that would intrigue an interviewer? How able are they to translate their sporting achievements, volunteering activity, or possible caring roles into skills and qualities that businesses seek?

We must do more to encourage aspiring millennials to build and articulate more intangible, extra-curricular assets.

To that end, work experience of any kind is valuable. Most employers I know are equally keen to see that someone has waited tables or worked in a shop (dealing day-in, day-out with the public) than they are with a week in a law firm or bank.

It is a myth that work experience is hard to find. It exists in many shapes and forms and we should remind teenagers that initiative is everything.

A few years ago I was phoned by a student who said he liked what I was doing and could he come in and help out for free. Hard to refuse, so he came in and we showed him what we did and got him involved for a couple of weeks.

We ended up giving him a short paid project too. I mentored him briefly after this on his first start-up. Seven years later he is the CEO of his own ad-tech start-up in Silicon Valley and raised £18 million last year in funding.

Granted, in 2015, only a fifth of UK employers were involved in inspiration programmes for would-be candidates (e.g. mock interviews, open days, mentoring and challenges) but this figure is rising slowly. At Rise To (which is a “career accelerator” that helps job-seekers to build and improve their CVs), we have built relationships with some of them.

Who does each of your students admire in working life and why do they admire them? Do we give them room to think about this? It requires a level of self-awareness that should be encouraged.

There are a handful of creative career and self-awareness coaching outfits like Eyes Wide Opened, which run sessions with year 10 and 11 students to bring clarity to who they are, what they “offer” and what might actually suit them work-wise. Being employable means understanding responsibility. It involves having a track record, however unconventional, of real-life, hands-on experience in a business or charity or as a youth, church or arts volunteer. The obsession with grades is dangerous. We need teenagers to embrace a challenge and not fear failure.

We should help them focus on activities that develop core competencies like verbal reasoning, analytical thinking, leadership, team-work and interaction skills. Resilience, for example, can be demonstrated by anything that takes time and commitment, like competitive sport, higher grades in music, or completing a marathon.

Getting real

So can your students provide evidence of putting these skills into practice? Where should they look to guide their employment journey? There’s a new breed of interactive learning and recruitment websites helping young people to find courses and experiences that employers are asking for.

The more committed employers offer via these websites on-going shadowing and mentoring opportunities of varying lengths and types. It builds their brand and helps them see contenders “in situ” and not just on paper.

I have worked in more than 100 businesses since my teens and enjoyed (or not) many “quirky”, sometimes off-putting placements. Putting yourself into uncomfortable positions certainly builds character – knocking on doors offering car washes as a teenager taught me about timing and profits – a road of clean cars suggested that someone had beaten me to it.

Data input in a soulless, silent office for two of the longest days of my life at a water authority taught me what I didn’t want to do.
And on becoming an auditor, I learned that the substance of a role is more important than its reputation. The auditing process is genuinely interesting and has more substance and responsibility than many flasher-sounding jobs! The more variety of activities, however short in duration, the clearer anyone will get on what suits them.

How teachers can help

  1. Encourage students to ask friends, family and local community figures in roles they admire to let them shadow at work for a short period (just a day is fine). And if they are intimidated, have them pair up and do it with a friend (assuming the employer is happy – ask nicely and they will be).
  2. Get students to ask five of their friends how they would describe them in a few words and what they feel makes them different. Look for themes and patterns. These are their unique selling points. Consider in-school self-awareness sessions with coaching teams who work with year 10 and 11s.
  3. Encourage students to build a “why hire me?” list and, crucially, to gather evidence. What might they upload onto a 3D digital CV to paint an employable picture of themselves? Think volunteering and community-related certificates and videos showing hobbies, skills, achievements and references from community leaders they have impressed.

Teachers have enough demands on their time, skills and headspace. Realistically they shouldn’t have to provide careers advice. But there is a role to play in providing inspiration and signposting towards fit-for-purpose resources.

Online learning and career-finding platforms like Plotr and Rise To provide early support and valuable work-preparation – if parents and young people are signposted to them in time. They offer a useful gateway to self-assessment tools and means to develop relevant skills.

Some schools are in the process of gaining a dedicated Enterprise Advisor through the government’s Careers and Enterprise Company to help pupils connect to businesses. Founders4Schools and Speakers for Schools are also easy-to-use self-service platforms to organise site visits at school or at a business.

I saw a headteacher in Liverpool tell an audience recently that the single most profound thing she has done in the last 10 years is offer her year 9 students a psychometric test.

The results in building self-awareness were “amazing”, and self-awareness is, ultimately, where true employability begins.

  • Duncan Cheatle is co-founder of StartUp Britain. He is also founder and CEO of, a free “career accelerator” for 16 to 24-year-olds, and The Supper Club, home to 400-plus founder/CEOs of fast-growth businesses.

Further information

16 year olds should not be allowed to leave full time education until they have passed a "School leaving certificate" exam.The syllabus tailor made to suit the employment needs giving them more confidence in the employment field. Failure to pass could result in a job offer in the forces. - More details available.
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