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What is Employer Engagement – and Why Does It Matter for Your School?

When it comes to employer engagement, current working practice in schools and colleges can sometimes feel as though it’s lacking in imagination, with it being one of the million things a school or college has pressure in achieving. But it’s not just a box to tick, rather it’s something that can be implemented into the culture of schooling for the benefit of all. And when employer engagement is woven into the fabric of education, it really has been proven to enhance student employability and workplace development, as well as establishing a more symbiotic relationship between teaching and student learning. It takes work, but the benefits are huge. 

Alongside it being great for schools and student performance, it’s also important to an ever-evolving job market. There are palpable skills shortages across STEM careers like engineering, the uncertainty posed by Brexit and evolving legislation, pointing to a potential shortfall in the talent pipeline for employers, and so employer engagement is a good way of ensuring that the impact of this is minimised.

We get it; employer engagement often seems like a daunting process for schools and colleges, with much of its organisation and management falling on the shoulders of individual teachers that already have a to-do list as long as their arm. This, coupled with Ofsted and the DfE’s increased emphasis on the career quality of school leavers, puts more pressure on schools and colleges to find innovative ways of engaging with employers.

But by adding value by seeking new ways to make employer engagement exciting for students, schools are in turn making a tangible positive impact on their students’ prospects for the future and so it is a process worth investing in. Where employer engagement activities are offered, students are more likely to see an increase in their overall lifetime earnings, not to mention that they are up to five times less likely to become NEET.

The problem as employers see it, is that school leavers are coming away from education inadequately prepared for an evolving job market which demands more and more skills off its workforce. Of over 3000 employers surveyed by the London Evening Standard, 57% felt that students were lacking basic self management skills, whilst nearly 68% felt that these same students lacked any understanding of customer service or business acumen.

But how can schools and colleges achieve great employer engagement? What does that look like in terms of real best practice? According to a report from Skills Development Scotland:

“There is a need to broaden the menu of activities away from a simple focus on two week’s work experience at a set age: job shadowing/work tasters, careers events, half day enterprise competitions, mock interview sessions – to name but a few – are highly regarded by teachers with first-hand experience of them, and are relatively easy to integrate into school life.”

The report also suggests that apportioning a substantial amount of time away from lessons and exam preparation, and dedicating it to employer engagement can actually boost overall academic performance, rather than hinder it:

“In addition, research shows that student performance and motivation can improve as they gain a deeper understanding of the relevance of education and qualifications to the workplace.”

In other words, if schools and colleges approach employer engagement in a way similar to exam preparation and lesson planning – developing a rounded, holistic approach to education focussed on a student’s eventual placement in the job market – there are huge benefits which ripple out from student, to school, to employer, and to society.

Change in Legislation

With the DfE and Ofsted placing more emphasis on what the UK Commission for Employment and Skills calls ‘Qualitative Evaluation of Demand-led Skill Solutions’, the Government has made clear that employer engagement is high on its priority list for what constitutes a successful education programme. That’s why in January 2018 its new Careers Strategy was launched.

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In practice, what this means is better access to funding for schools and colleges who provide their students with the opportunity to meet with employers and trainers on a regular basis; added stipulations during inspections; and the publication of a short policy statement on the school/college website.

The basis behind this, according to Skills Minister Anne Milton is that the Government: “want[s] every young person, whatever their background, to have a good understanding of both the academic and technical routes that can lead to future success in a rewarding career or job.”

Milton continues:

“We must expand the breadth of information that young people receive on all education and training options but particularly technical options and apprenticeships. It is only by talking directly to a range of providers, including university technical colleges, FE colleges and apprenticeship providers, that young people can truly appreciate the opportunities available to them.”

What is required for great employer engagement?

In a report prepared by Medway UTC in Gillingham (in conjunction with Baker Dearing), it was pointed out that what makes for strong employer engagement on behalf of educators is, first and foremost, an ongoing dialogue between school staff, management and employers. In this way, continuing professional partnerships are likely to develop, and with employers taking a more hands-on approach through increased involvement in the reviewing and curriculum making process, a results-focused programme for students is more likely to be successful.

The report also recommends the involvement of a fully-dedicated non-teaching member of staff who can commit fully to the maintenance and organisation of a respective school or college’s employer engagement programme, rather than lumbering Mrs Jones with it who is already teaching 5 classes a day. This member of staff should ideally be responsible for building and sustaining good working relationships with employers, so that an emphasis on continued success is built in from the very start.

It should also be highlighted that the most successful employer engagement strategies are planned efficiently in advance, and employer time is ring-fenced. This means documenting processes where possible, perhaps even investing in tracking systems to refine and improve best practice. It also means working with employers to ensure that they do not feel overwhelmed, that the time they give away from work is prioritised as a core part of the curriculum, that they are engaging with young people in a way that goes beyond standard corporate social responsibility, and that thinking is long-term, rather than short-term.

For employers, engaging with schools and colleges is a great way of building their talent pipeline and an increase in brand recognition, since they are seen to be ‘giving back’ in a highly visual way and are thus predisposed to increase their profile at a grass-roots level.

Useful ideas to enrich employer engagement

The reason that employer engagement is currently lacking across the board is because schools and colleges have become comfortable with the idea of it as merely two weeks’ work experience out of every year. Bish, bash, bosh – job done. Rather than this, it should be treated as an ongoing project which prepares students for the job market. Job shadowing and work tasters are one method of engaging students with employers, but there are also lots of other ways: careers events, enterprise competitions, mock interview sessions, mentoring sessions, and incentive schemes.

Current thinking suggests that employer-led curriculum learning is an effective, practical way of educating students about the realities of working life. This means schools and colleges developing resources in conjunction with employers, so that students can see how their education can be made work for them. STEM-related material, for example, could be geared towards showing how certain careers like engineering and medicine benefit from the development of certain skill sets.

Participation in Young Enterprise schemes can help students see the possibilities involved in self-employment. Since they are intrinsically geared towards innovation and entrepreneurship, they are a good way of reaching motivated students from an early age so that by the time they leave school, they are prepared for the realities of the self-employed job market.

And with a greater emphasis being placed on technology year on year in schools and colleges, using apps, management systems and information resources to connect educators with employers is more important now than it’s ever been. It also keeps students up to date with the latest advancements in computing, develops much-sought-after IT skills and gives them a sense of accomplishment.

We’re big fans of employer engagement, and it’s never been more important for schools and colleges to dive head-first and properly infuse it into the everyday lives of their students for the benefit of their future. Check out our guide on understanding and implementing the government’s new strategy here.

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Lewis Taplin

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