Employers can’t find candidates, educators are stuck between frameworks, and young people feel unprepared. What does work-ready mean in the 21st century?

Our educational system does its best to equip future workforces with abilities and knowledge to perform objective tasks in the workplace. Some prepare them to become specialists who can be quickly useful. And a good few go beyond that by trying to make graduates and trainees employable, covering subjects such as what makes a good CV or basic interview techniques. But really, is that really the best they can do?

The skills gained throughout education and training go as far as getting a live interview or having some work experience. But remain very far from landing a job, and even farther when it comes to keeping it. Somehow, there are core competencies still missing to become adaptive to the real-world environment.

According to the Confederation of British Industry, from the 45% of business ranking work readiness as the most important factor they look for when recruiting, only 1% of employers feel that young people are work ready. The same is felt by the candidates themselves, with 1 in 4 young people not feeling remotely prepared for the real world. Candidates are technically fit, but not fully equipped.

What does it mean

Every young person should have access to a curriculum that not only provides them with knowledge, but also with the ability to articulate this knowledge, and the chance to develop their character to fit into the modern workforce. But it would be unrealistic to expect the education system to do this alone. This should be a shared responsibility between parents, government, educational institutions and employers.

There are many ways to describe what work-ready means – such as life skills, soft skills, transferrable skills or character education. And there are many evidence-based and well-tested frameworks – from the CBI 7-point employability framework (2007), to SkillsBuilder (2018), Fettes et al. (2018) or Education and Employers (2018). However, they differ from each other; there are three common pillars to any structure designed to prepare young people for the modern world:

  • Knowledge: The subject-specific awareness and proficiency in a variety of disciplines that fit the career or interests they choose to pursue;
  • Skills: The ability to apply that knowledge in real world environments, requiring human competencies such as communication, problem-solving or collaboration;
  • Character: The set of personal characteristics, qualities and strengths that enable someone to evolve, adapt and thrive throughout life.

More than ever, employers are looking for character

If skills and knowledge are a given, there is only one component missing. All in all, and behind the numbers, the work reality can be summed up as people hiring people to work with people.

Employers are looking for individuals that will become valuable members of their team. If the technical abilities are roughly the same among candidates, it is the human element that sets them apart. Not their grades, nor their diplomas.

Humanity aside – with globalisation, technology, and demographic shifts – the focus on character is the only way to ensure that workforces will be able to navigate the future with all its changes and uncertainties. For some good reason, the new Ofsted framework includes a section dedicated to personal development. Developing pupils’ character which they define as “a set of positive personal traits, dispositions and virtues that informs their motivation and guides their conduct (…) gives pupils the qualities they need to flourish in our society.”

We are living in a time in which humans are asked to be humans, offering what is unique to them so they can productively cooperate with others. And while it is fair to say that character develops as we experience life, it is also fair to believe that we, as a system, can prompt those experiences and promote those behaviours to raise more complete human beings. Not just to be ready for work, but to be ready for life.