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Opinion: We will all benefit if schools and small firms work closer together

Claudia Harris_detail

The economy and society both stand to benefit from closer links between organisations and schools. Small business owners can help to make this happen, says Claudia Harris, Chief Executive of the Careers and Enterprise Company.

There is a consensus among Government, business and education that more must be done to prepare young people for the fast-changing world of work.

Small businesses have a critical role to play in making this happen. Already half of FSB members employ at least one apprentice, or are considering hiring one in the future. 

But to make the most of their time and resources, small firms need school engagement to be simple and high-impact. In England, it is our role at the Careers & Enterprise Company to ensure this simplicity by bridging the gap between education and employers through our Enterprise Adviser Network.

The network is made up of Enterprise Coordinators who we co-fund with the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPS), partnerships between local authorities and local businesses. Enterprise Coordinators are trained people who work with schools and colleges to build careers and employer engagement plans. In addition, each school and college is supported by an Enterprise Adviser – a senior volunteer from business – who helps unlock relationships with other local businesses. 

The network is based on evidence that if young people have multiple, high-quality experiences of the world of work, they are more likely to find employment, and on average will earn 18 per cent more during their career. These encounters with business boost the prospects of young people and the performance of the economy.

However, only 40 per cent of schools offer young people this kind of encounter with an employer each year, research shows. And, while 66 per cent of employers think work experience is critical or significant, just 38 per cent of them offer it.

To help address this gap, over the past year we have recruited more than 1,000 Enterprise Advisers from all areas and sectors. Around 40 per cent are at chief executive or chair level and more than half are from small businesses. It’s not surprising that small firms are prominent, as they are the cornerstone of communities and understand the skills gaps.

If you are passionate about motivating young people, can work with a range of employers and schools and have established business networks, please consider becoming an Enterprise Adviser. Taking on this role is a chance to develop your local workforce and address the skills gap in your sector. Working with local schools and colleges also deepens your connection to the local community and provides access to an entry-level talent pool.
After less than a year of operation, the network is live in almost one-third of secondary schools. We have also seen a threefold rise in employer engagement plans among schools and colleges that have joined – from 15 per cent of schools with plans in place to 45 per cent.

There is no shortage of willingness to improve young people’s lives through better employer engagement. But to embed change, we need the ongoing co-operation of education and business.

Claudia Harris is chief executive of the Careers and Enterprise Company