Tackling the skills gap: Do you understand the new school-leavers' qualifications?

  • 20 Jan 2020

Seven years ago, Rowan Crozier, CEO of Birmingham-based precision engineering company Brandauer & Co, had a problem. “We were struggling to gain any value from our young recruits,” he recalls. “We had had mediocre success finding staff that fitted in, so took the drastic decision to cease taking on any young people completely until we found a better way.” 

Today, thanks to working with a local apprenticeship training college – a partner that Mr Crozier says “effectively pre-vets” young people on their behalf – the transformation couldn’t be starker. A workforce with an average age of 58 has been reduced to an average of 44, with capable, value-contributing apprentices alone now comprising
15 per cent of the workplace.

This small firm is one of the lucky ones. Business owners are increasingly finding school-leavers incapable of joining them ‘work ready’ – with skills that translate into actual activities required by employers – while 22 per cent of all vacancies are ‘hard to fill’ because of reported skill shortages, according to the most recent UKCES Employer Skills Survey. 


One issue is that many employers do not know what they’re looking at when it comes to exam grades. In England, since 2017, students have seen GCSE grades phased to numerical scores from 9 to 1 – 9 being top. This has replaced the much-understood A*-G. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all made their own changes, too (see box). 

Confusing matters further, Ofqual warns against firms making ‘direct and overly simplistic’ comparisons between new and old systems – even though most explanations of the new system do just this, with a ‘4’ broadly a previous Grade C. Even here, though, it’s not simple. There are two ‘pass’ marks: 4 being a standard pass and 5 a strong pass. 

Unsurprisingly, Ofqual’s research suggests a fifth of SMEs didn’t understand the system when it was first introduced; a year later, a quarter still thought the bottom mark was the top, while nearly a third (31 per cent) were still unaware of the new scheme.  

“What must be very frustrating for SMEs is that they are often the keenest to hire young people – our own research finds 30 per cent hire from lower academic backgrounds,” says FSB Policy Advisor Chinara Rustamova.

“But what compounds the issue is that many SMEs hire infrequently, or through people they know, or informally, so they probably haven’t yet had enough exposure to the new grades to know how they fit with what they want.”

Simon Reichwald, strategic lead for emerging talent at MyKindaFuture, which works with employers to help young people gain employability skills, identifies another issue.


“Another factor that doesn’t help is that every year there seem to be yet more stories about how exams are getting easier, which doesn’t chime with what employers find when they actually employ them,” he says. 

Beyond the grades

Mr Reichwald believes the biggest problem of all is that no matter how results are scaled, they’ll always be indicative-only, because results are seldom an indicator of in-work success. “This presents challenges for SMEs, because it means they have to do more than just look at grades. 

They have to engage with schools, which may not always be something they want to do or have time for.”

Shaun Thomson, CEO of Sandler Training – a recruiter, but also a growing SME himself – agrees that predicting work success requires more than thinking about how grades will translate to their business. “Many are stuck in the time-warp of when they 
did exams – I still hear some talk about O-Levels – but with school-leavers particularly, the qualifications they have can only really be used as minimum benchmarks,” he says.

“We’re a seven-strong company, and in our time have taken on four school-leavers. Two have stayed and have fitted in really well, and the common feature of both was that they both had Saturday jobs – they didn’t have a sense of entitlement, and were already used to working.”

Because school-leavers are less known entities, Debbie Williams, co-founder of John Williams Heating Services in Wiltshire, argues SMEs need to work harder to tease out the skills they do have that employers need – particularly soft skills. “We only require a minimum grade C or equivalent in Maths and English,” she says. “The rest is what they can show they’re capable of – we try to get to this with interview questions like ‘If you were a type of tea, what would you be and why?’ It forces candidates to think on their feet and problem-solve.”

Unlike the 70 per cent of large businesses that do psychometric tests to glean compatibility data, small firms – often without HR departments – can feel ill-equipped to get to the nub of a person’s hidden skills. But this is all the more reason, says Mr Reichwald, to bite the bullet and engage with schools. 

“SMEs moan about the education system, and schools moan businesses don’t do enough,” he says. “There needs to be more of a coming-together. I sense SMEs would be more willing if there was less perceived red tape. But they could be more strategic, too – choosing colleges with specialisms in their line of business, to create a feeder system. They can’t just visit once either; they need to commit to visiting frequently, and keeping people – potential employees – ‘warm’, so that they can be approached as they leave school.”

Technical changes

Employer contact with schools has slipped since 2015, when schools stopped having to organise mandatory work experience. It has been replaced by the Government’s recent emphasis on apprenticeships, designed to have as many at-work features as possible: 
80 per cent on-the-job and 20 per cent in education. 

Even here, though, employers need to brace themselves for more change. From 2021, they’ll have to contend with ‘T-Levels’ – new technical qualifications equivalent to three A-Levels (or Level 3) that students aged 16-18 will be able to study for, with a full roll-out planned for 2023. Their aim, according to the Government, is to provide a technical alternative to A-Levels that will better prepare them for skilled jobs. 


“The Government’s Sainsbury Review of education concluded there were too many post-16 qualifications [BTECs, City & Guilds, apprenticeships etc], and this new level aims to fit in-between GCSE and A-Level,” says Mark Compton, Director of Employability, Partnerships and Adult Learning at Access Creative College, which will 
be one of the first providers to roll out the T-Level in September. “The idea is that they are more rigorous, and SMEs should be welcoming of them – not least because SMEs have been involved in designing content.”

According to the Education and Training Foundation, the skills required for T-Levels will be higher than many current vocational qualifications because of the ‘expected level of competence students need to demonstrate in the occupational specialism’. But some employers remain unconvinced. 

A requirement of the T-Levels is that at least 45 days’ placement with an actual employer is mandatory (and ideally it should be 60). Many employers (74 per cent, according to the CIPD in 2018) say they won’t be able to offer this, while others argue 45 days isn’t long enough, especially as a new change has been inserted that allows them to be split between more than one employer. 

“T-Levels are a flip of the apprenticeship model in that they’re 80 per cent in education, 20 per cent on-the-job,” admits Mr Compton, which some employers might regard as making young people less work-ready. “But the other side of the coin is that the commitment needed for an apprenticeship was putting many SMEs off, so a more manageable time commitment from them could make T-Levels more enticing.”

Ms Rustamova says she would like to see Government incentives to make taking on 
a T-Level student financially worthwhile. “They should look at schemes like T-Levels almost like internships – as a way of introducing people to their business, and making a contact with someone they can observe and potentially hire,” she says.  

While views on the future state of education will continue to be debated, it’s clear small firms can help themselves, too.

“SMEs must keep up to date by engaging with schools – bodies that all now have to reach so-called ‘Gatsby Benchmarks’ – one of which is around how they tackle employability,” adds Ms Rustamova. “They must be part of this conversation to really ensure they find all the skills they need.” 

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