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Beware the widening skills gap between education and employment - ISE Conference

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Attendees of the ISE’s Student Development Conference learned that employers increasingly believe that early careers hires are lacking professional skills. What is the solution?

The skills gap between education and employment is widening, according to experts at the 2024  ISE Student Development Conference. 

But attendees of the London-based event’s keynotes and breakout seminars also learned that the perception of a skills mismatch is due to generational differences - requiring a very specific response from employers. 

The Conference’s opening session set the tone, with ISE’s Head of Insights Georgia Greer unveiling new data demonstrating that early career hires are less career-ready than ever. 

The ISE’s 2024 Student Development survey found that less than half of the 139 organisations polled thought their graduates were ‘career ready’—the lowest number to date. 

This figure dropped to 25% for school and college leavers. 

These findings were no surprise to Natwest Group’s Head of Behavioural Science, Dr Anna Koczwara who noted: “There is now a clear difference between graduates and employees.

In a roundtable discussion about the key psychological shifts from student to professional, Dr Koczwara emphasised that this is not an academic issue and that the onus is on businesses to find a pragmatic solution. 

“Gen Z can provide a competitive advantage… so don’t shy away!”

Where is the skills gap most apparent?

While the need to develop work-appropriate written and verbal communication skills was widely acknowledged, the ISE survey found the 3 capabilities most requiring development were:

  • Self-motivation / responsibility
  • Resilience
  • Self-awareness

Yet, as revealed by Spotted Zebra Co-Founder Nick Shaw in his session on early talent development, assessments indicate that the skills early careers hires are most highly ranked on are:

  • Adaptability 
  • Resilience
  • Making things happen

This is a significant disconnect. So, are early career hires lacking the professional behaviours and skills required by employers? Or is there a perceived mismatch because these skills manifest themselves differently according to generation?

An afternoon session led by Gradconsult’s Rebecca Fielding proposed that various life events could have contributed to this:

These include:

  • Pandemic lockdowns have influenced the emotional development of teenagers who are now graduates/school leavers.
  • Encouragement to be their ‘authentic’ selves can conflict with professional behaviour. For example, a graduate might be told food and drinks are free in the kitchen and then take all the tea bags home.
  • Remote working prevents employees from picking up social cues - what can take 1 year to learn in the office could take 3 years if employees are only there 2 days a week.

How to address the early careers skills mismatch

So what does this mean for closing the gap between expectations of professional behaviours and those demonstrated by early careers hires?

Attendees were given a range of advice, with some particularly valuable takeaways provided by Dr Koczwara, who shared how NatWest has been tackling the issue. She said that the high-street bank provides managers with generation awareness training to educate them about the ‘why’s and ‘what’s of generational differences. 

In addition, NatWest has developed its early careers programme to work with individuals to provide clarity and coaching on values and unspoken rules. “Support networks and coaching is key, helping them to develop their own networks to make it sustainable,” Dr Koczwara explained.

Network-building is fundamental to the wellbeing and success of early careers hires, according to best-selling author Will Storr during his keynote. 

Describing a sense of ‘belonging’ and ‘community’ as a basic human need, he explained that acceptance and status are vital to our physical and mental well-being. A  job is therefore a part of one’s identity and is crucial to feeling valued, something that relates back to our ancestry within tribal communities, he noted. 

So what does this mean for today’s businesses as they welcome a new generation of employees into their workforce? 

Storr revealed that evidence indicates socialisation focused on individuals’ authentic identity will lead to better job performance and higher engagement. Therefore, Storr encourages businesses to develop a culture that enables employees to be individuals while simultaneously feeling part of the collective. 

Nick Shaw provided one solution to achieving this in his session about adopting a skills-based approach to early careers talent development. A skills focus enables organisations to identify individuals’ skills and align them with roles that put them to best use, empowering and celebrating the individual to maximise the output of the team. 

This approach allows employees to be more productive as part of the organisation and happier as individuals because their unique skills are being utilised and developed. 

The results being delivered by Spotted Zebra’s skills intelligence platform bear this out. Businesses that have used Spotted Zebra’s early careers Hiring solution report huge reductions in year one attrition (from 35% to 10%, in one example). 

One of the leading reasons for this success is the platform’s ability to identify candidates that are well aligned with employer culture and values

If you’d like to learn more about how a skills-based approach to early careers hiring and development can negate a skills mismatch, our experts are available for a Skills Strategy Lunch and Learn. Click here to learn more and reserve a session for you and your team.