Giving our young people the skills to succeed in a tough job market

By Ron Maxwell - CEO

With youth unemployment sitting at around 12.5% and underemployment even higher, it’s harder than ever for young people to find secure, full-time employment. Add in the challenges presented by digital disruption, and I believe that we must find a way to better prepare emerging generations for work.  

Digital literacy is a core skill that is often discussed when we talk about preparing for the jobs of the future, but in my experience, this isn’t where the main challenge lies for our youth. Emerging generations are digital natives, they have been immersed in technology from a very young age and as a result digital literacy is relatively high amongst this demographic.  

But it’s this very thing – the immersion in technology – that has also contributed to what I see as one of the biggest challenges – a lack of social and communication skills. Previous generations had many organic opportunities to develop critical self and social awareness during childhood and young adulthood. The digital nature of our society today means many face-to-face interactions have been replaced by online platforms, such as social media, and this limits the incidental opportunities to learn these skills. 

Interpersonal and soft skills are developed and nurtured by experience, not in a classroom.  There is a mountain of research that supports the view that soft skills, such as interpersonal skills, collaboration, analytical thinking and willingness to learn are key to employability.   These skills sit alongside digital literacy in a group of skills known as ‘enterprise skills’, the generic skills an employee needs to succeed in a workplace, regardless of industry. They complement an individual’s technical skills, knowledge and experience and they are in high demand amongst Australian employers.

VET has a part to play

Finding opportunities to gain real-world experience is key, and it must be more than a short burst of work experience to have an impact. It’s one of the many advantages of an apprenticeship or traineeship – alongside the technical skills and qualifications, apprentices and trainees develop a toolkit of generic workplace skills.  These skills will set them up in good stead, no matter how many times they change careers.  

Although there is no doubt that automation and AI will impact the way we work, according to the Department of Employment jobs requiring creativity, complex judgement, advanced reasoning, social interaction and emotional intelligence are only set to grow.  Many of these are human skills, not everything can or will be replaced by robotics and AI.

In fact, vocational education and training (VET) offers many opportunities to develop on-the-job experience, and even in the classroom you’ll likely be working with those who are on the coal face.  At VERTO, for example, our trainers must prove their workplace currency and relevance to industry.  In fact, many of them are actively working in their industries and teaching part-time.  

The competency-based nature of VET also means that achieving a certificate is a guarantee to employers that an individual has a specific skill set and, in a crowded job market, this can give job seekers an edge. 

Interacting with employers

I am a big supporter of networking and mentoring programs, and believe we need to offer more structured opportunities to job seekers, but they are out there for those motivated to find them.  National Skills Week, for example, that is happening this week, offers a wide variety of events to network, interact and get exposure to a range of career opportunities. 

Taking the time to engage with these programs builds confidence, provides an opportunity to interact with potential employers and develops communication skills. ‘Meet The Tradies’, for example, an event that VERTO is offering in Bathurst this week, brings together tradespeople from fifteen different industries and attendees can engage with them to learn about the industry and find out what skills they’ll need to succeed.

Schools and industry can collaborate

Many schools are starting to introduce science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) specific subjects and we need to expand this into a range of workplace skills.  For my son, who recently entered the workforce, the basic workplace skills his primary school taught him, such as how to type, have been an advantage in securing employment.  

The reality for our youth today, is that they will change jobs an average of 17 times and have 5 careers in their lifetimes. We need to equip our up-and-coming generations for that uncertainty and schools have a key role to play.  

Resilience and emotional intelligence will come to the forefront as we navigate more and more uncertainty in labour markets, across the globe.  Focusing on building enterprise skills and expanding learn and earn study options from a younger age is critical.  Germany’s dual education system, which fosters strong relationships between schools and companies is great example of how this can work, to the benefit of future generations, industry and the economy alike.

In a world where the only constant is change, we can’t focus narrowly on the skills needed to simply find a job, we need to give our students the skills to manage a varied and changing career from a young age.