Bringing young people into the workplace: how to develop youth skills and experience

Harry Gooding, Director, Hays Enterprise Technology Practice - UK and Ireland

For World Youth Skills Day on July 15th, I spoke to Matt Ballantine of Equal Experts and Simon Bozzoli of LDN Apprenticeships to discover their thoughts on how organisations can help young people fulfil their potential.

1) Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Matt: After graduating in sociology and computing, I worked at KPMG and LSE before moving to BBC Worldwide as the first wave of digital came about. I’ve worked in management training and leadership development, along with IT leadership roles at Reuters and Microsoft. I’ve also spent six years in a consultancy role, helping CIOs think through how they might structure and organise themselves and their teams, as well as innovation and ideation.

My new role is as an engagement manager at what is primarily a software development business Equal Experts, working with clients across the globe. At heart, though, I'm a sociologist, so I’m thinking about this as a set of challenges that are around people and organisations, just not just the technology itself.

Simon: I started LDN Apprenticeships back in 2010 at the height of the UK unemployment crisis caused by the 2008 economic crash. There were literally millions of young people in London who had no way of starting meaningful careers. Back then, apprenticeships were for people who had no alternative option to university, and I felt like that was wrong. I saw apprenticeships as a way of connecting young people to amazing jobs in great companies.

Today our mission is to create opportunities for diverse talent to realise their potential. We're quite different to many apprenticeship providers in that the vast majority of our business is about placing young people into their first job in a real workplace and then supporting them through that experience.

2) How do you think we can attract young people to roles involving digital skills?

Matt: Although it's getting better, part of the challenge is that we don't have many people who have social science skills or are from an arts/humanities background really prevalent in the delivery of technology. I think that the way in which the industry needs to be able to attract people is by identifying the skills we need to successfully deliver technology.

Many organisations are seeing that there are skills gaps around the specific technologies, but they also need to think more broadly about the people that we need to attract into the industry. For me, diverse teams have better products because they have broader fields of appreciation.

Simon: The good news is that there are lots of young people interested in those roles and understand the benefits of pursuing a career in technology because it's an exciting growing sector. I think the issue is more about attracting certain types of young people to those careers and helping them realise their potential by pursuing those careers.

Despite years of rhetoric around diversity, there's really been a marginal improvement in the statistics for the technology sector over the last decade. Diversity is not just something that happens at the junior levels in your organisation – it’s something that exists across your entire organisation. If we have a lack of representation in senior positions, it becomes hard for certain people to envisage themselves becoming a technology leader, so they’re less enthused.

3) What are the challenges young people face in acquiring digital skills?

Matt: There are a lot of preconceptions that, because young people have been exposed to technology, they can use it in a work environment. It’s like saying that I must be a better driver than my parents because I grew up with a car - it’s nonsense!

Because of the rise in hybrid working, organisations also now need to rethink what training young people means, because I'm not seeing many addressing this besides “oh, online learning!”

Simon: There's a growing question mark around the efficacy of going to university in order to gain the skills that employers are looking for. More and more, people aren’t getting the return on the investment that they made in their university education. Apprenticeships are particularly exciting. They give young people a safe space where they have formal learning and then application of the skills that they've developed. By learning skills in the workplace, supported by a training provider, it means that those skills are relevant.

We have to build a new generation of lifelong learners. It's not like learning is just a single injection of knowledge - we have to build a completely new approach. Recognising learning alongside work is a really good way to do that.

4) What do you think is the biggest challenge for young people entering the world of work?

Matt: Leading up to the pandemic, many organisations were already operating in a hybrid way, and people in global organisations wouldn't be working in the same physical space as their colleagues. The challenge now is that hybrid working is going to become increasingly prevalent, so if organisations don't change how they induct people into a new role, it won’t work because it's definitely harder to adopt the skills.

I think people entering employment are probably the ones most in need of office space because they're the least likely to have the luxury of space at home to work. The idea of me working from the shared houses that I lived in in the 1990s - it's horrific!

Simon: Firstly, if you’ve just finished education, there are very few things that differentiate you from your peers on a CV. If we just look at CVs, some biases start to creep in and it has an impact on diversity. LDN Apprenticeships don’t use CVs anymore - we get to know all of the candidates who apply and then we introduce them to our clients because it gives them the opportunity to put their best foot forward and talk about themselves.

Secondly, when a young person starts their first job, there's suddenly a massive shift towards individual accountability. That can be difficult, especially if they have things going on in life that they're not in control of. Having a support network around young people as they go into these jobs to help them to navigate the workplace is important, and especially relevant following the pandemic.

5) In your experience, what can organisations do to help young people?

Matt: One thing which I think has huge amounts of promise is an apprenticeship. Increasingly, the economic decision to go to university is now far harder than it was in the UK, so employers become a very credible alternative. A downside of the traditional route is that it can lead to people being very compliant when, particularly in the realm of digital, we need people who are willing to challenge orthodoxy. Too often, graduates are trained into short-term thinking because they need to demonstrate they're a high performer within two years. There’s a challenge in preparing for the long term.

Simon: Leadership. Where we see our apprenticeships working best is where there’s buy-in from people at the highest level of the company. Everything flows from the top and the challenges become easier to solve because leaders have given people in the organisation permission to make it work. Taking that conscious decision at a senior leadership level to be a business that attracts, develops and supports young talent is important.

6) How do we get organisations behind this?

Matt: I think one of the shifts that some organisations are waking up to now is people who have skills and expertise are looking for a value proposition that is more than a salary and a good pension. How do you as an employer add value to my career? There's much more of a two-way value exchange needed there. If your only response to that is employee engagement and giving everybody pizza on a Friday, that won’t cut it.

We talk about employee engagement. Organisations need to stop that and start thinking about employer engagement. It's up to the employer to be engaging, not the employee to be engaged.

Simon: We're in a tight labour market - there are not enough people to fill the jobs that are available. One of the biggest influxes into our talent pool happens at the end of the academic year when people leave education. Companies that fail to attract this talent are just going to lose out, end of story.

Companies need to have a strategy in place to attract that talent: create a supportive environment and understand what young people want from their employers. Then, invest in them and support them.

If Company A recruits 20 brilliant young people and Company B doesn't, that's a competitive loss for Company B for sure.

Read more on upskilling here.


Harry Gooding
Director, Hays National Technology - UK&I

Harry works across Hays' Enterprise Technology Practice and supporting new initiatives around skills development. After beginning his career in recruitment, he then worked in VC backed start-ups and scale-ups for six years across two different portfolios before joining Hays.