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How SMEs can address ‘patchy’ careers advice in schools

Sinead Hasson, managing director of Hasson Associates

At the end of January, on Radio 4’s Today programme, lawyer and businesswoman Margaret Mountford and careers advisor Deborah Streatfield debated what can be done to improve careers advice in schools. Hasson weighs in with her views as a consultant and small business owner who also struggles to find the right talent.

As it stands, career guidance for pupils is ‘patchy’ at best. Some schools employ careers advisors who are out of touch with the changing nature of the modern workplace. Others don’t provide any direction at all. Schools are given no additional funding for careers advice and it shows. Some teachers may take on the role, but often their recommendations are limited; many have not experienced life outside of education and may not therefore be best placed to communicate all the options available.

For a lot of students, going to university will be the right choice, but for others, the technical education provided by apprenticeships will be a much more suitable fit. The new law ensuring that schools collaborate with training providers and technical colleges to make students more aware of options like higher and degree-level apprenticeships is a step in the right direction. But it will take more than cooperation from schools to really improve visibility. Employer involvement is critical too. Take the market research industry for example. It is crying out for young analytical minds who are equipped with the skills to work in a digital environment. Yet, how many research firms attend open days at schools or colleges or host sixth form job fairs to source talent?

So many employers, insight agencies and recruitment firms included, are in need of people with a head for maths and data analysis, fostered by subjects like science, engineering and economics. That said, they also need skills built from academic subjects like English, history and social sciences, particularly in qualitative posts. I know plenty of (successful) MR professionals who just happened to ‘stumble across a research job ad’ and a number of consultants who claim they just ‘fell into recruitment’, as neither were marked as obvious career choices.

Almost every SME business owner will agree that making time for recruitment is an ongoing challenge as their priorities are so widely contested from one day to the next. Nonetheless SMEs, perhaps more than large organisations, are dependent on key people to keep the fires burning. With this in mind, failing to invest time in fostering ‘a people pipeline’ in order to find the right talent is a big mistake. So, what can be done?

A channel must be created to strategically guide young professionals into suitable roles. It’s no secret that firms wanting the best candidates need to build and maintain a strong employer brand, but there’s an argument that says engaging candidates at the age of 18, or even 21, might already be too late. Often the most promising school leavers and university graduates head straight into global heavyweights via grad schemes and apprenticeships, without even looking into the professional development opportunities on offer from local, smaller businesses. SMEs should be working harder to counter the trend by partnering with schools and colleges to offer work experience placements that will put their firms on the map, alongside the major players. After all, not everyone wants to work in a big organisation.

Whilst the Government should continue to take steps to acknowledge the gaps in careers advice and take action to fill them, SMEs can also take this opportunity to communicate what their business and their industry has to offer. This needs to happen sooner rather than later; smaller businesses can’t wait around for talent, they must collaborate quickly and effectively to position their industries attractively, or lose out to those with higher profiles.  

Industry bodies can and should get more involved, too. Time-poor business owners often have immediate day-to-day issues to address and it isn’t just the responsibility of small businesses to raise awareness of their value as first time employers. Professional associations could easily find ways to engage with students more frequently and substantively, particularly in the digital age.  The tools needed to make these connections have never been more available or widely used. It now falls to us to make sure we use them to their full potential.  

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