Work-based skills acquisition is a strong passion for Damien Yeates. Most vocational education takes place in a “simulated college environment” rather than the workplace. The skills system, in his view, has for too long been “heavily supply side”, allowing students to study anything, irrespective of its economic importance.
Yeates has been Chief Executive of Skills Development Scotland since its establishment in June 2008. It provides careers, skills, training and funding services and is accountable to the Scottish Government.
He commented that UK youth employment “pretty much flatlined” between 1998 and 2008, and it was now even harder to improve that. Employers appear to have lost the commitment to recruit young people into their organisation. Last year, he related, only 50 of the Scottish Government’s 5,000 staff were aged under 25.
Skills Development Scotland produces research for particular regions and sectors to explain the opportunities that are likely to emerge. This research then informs parents and careers teachers, and should then help young people to make better decisions.
Government contracts with universities and colleges were “increasingly output-based” and calling for courses to be aligned with the needs of industry. This was not popular in Scotland but he pointed out that other European countries were going much further.
Careers advice has moved from a single meeting to a much more graduated model of interviews, and careers coaches and work coaches who help NEET young people with the transition into work. “We firmly believe that what those young people need is the opportunity in the labour market rather than some kind of recycling [of] courses,” he stated.
A highly interactive online portal (www.myworldofwork.co.uk) gathers together information on life skills, interviews, CVs, vacancies and course choices. Yeates is keen to discuss the portal’s success with officials and careers staff in Northern Ireland.
At a European level, the best vocational education systems are “heavily work-based” and Switzerland is held up as the best performer. Every year, Swiss employers offer 56,000 apprenticeships for 15 year olds who have to compete for those places. All apprenticeships have a 30 per cent salary in year one, leading to a 70 per cent salary in year three. The completion rate is 93 per cent and youth unemployment (7 per cent) is the lowest in the OECD.
Apprentices spend three days in work and three days in school. Content for the school-based element is designed, written and quality assured by industry groups.
Only 26 per cent of Swiss young people go to university. In contrast, the majority of UK young people go into higher and further education which takes them out of the labour market for several years. They are now staying on for a longer time to avoid unemployment.
The Swiss model “only works because employers offer those jobs”. Yeates also agrees with the CBI’s ‘Tomorrow’s growth’ paper which calls for higher education to be brought back into the workplace rather than expanded. Indeed, the introduction of tuition fees in England has forced people to consider: “Why am I studying what I am studying, and to what end?”