Universities need to do more to engage with SMEs when designing qualifications for the workplace, according to businesses at a Birmingham Post round table discussion.
The conference, hosted by the Birmingham Post and sponsored by Birmingham City University Business School, saw invited guests discuss the skills needed for the workforce of tomorrow.
Attendees were Steve Chatwin, director of corporate services at West Midlands public transport authority Centro, Peter Dickin, marketing manager at Small Heath software company Delcam, Mary Hendry, managing director at Birmingham recruitment agency Key Personnel, Rachel Maclean, director at Skills For Birmingham, and Jenni Chambers, head of talent at Birmingham-based Two Sisters Food Group.
The panel discussed how to recruit the best staff, how to retain them and how to ensure they progress and develop within an organisation.
Seventy per cent of BCU students come from the region and stay in the region after graduation.
The Greater Birmingham & Solihull LEP has identified sectors which it believes to be key for regional growth: advanced manufacturing, life sciences, technology, digital and gaming, food and hospitality.
Professor Martin Reynolds, head of centre for leadership and management practice at BCU, said: “My job has been designing work based degrees for organisations, where students spend virtually all their time working instead of coming to campus.
“That theme has been increasing over the last few years with companies coming to us.
“A student might have a first or a 2:1, but not necessarily come with the other skills a business is looking for and a graduate might find it very difficult,” he added.
“There’s a growing expectation that we should do more but that has to be a two way thing.”
Prof Reynolds has helped design the degree programmes at Barclays, Rolls Royce and Experian.
Barclays recruit people at 18 and the students stay on for three years.
He said: “Some big companies are starting to work with us but that doesn’t seem to be working with small businesses.
“There needs to be an ongoing conversation with SMEs around courses that may work for them.
“Something we may explore locally is doing something in June or July, a break in the academic year that brings graduates to explore options to make sure that they are prepared for experiences in work.
“The vast majority of degree programmes have the content that you hear around the table.
“There are alternative degree programmes that address the problems we’ve heard of.”
“Universities are starting to offer degree programmes where the focus is on work experience.
“Barclays would recruit 20 graduates a year. I remember a meeting in Canary Wharf where they said ‘We have a difficulty retaining staff’.
“There was a clear sense of students one day being on campus and the next being in work and not being chief executive.
“The projected growth of graduates will be in countries like China and Africa. Much innovation is taking place in those countries.
“It’s a great opportunity to respond to that global workforce.
“My worry is that those innovations might happen outside our shores.”
Qualifications that are relevant to the workplace is a key feature of plans for the new ‘Birmingham Baccalaureate’, which is being trialled next year.
Cutting-edge digital skills and traditional engineering expertise are key factors for the qualification, in line with plans to develop the city’s economy.
A Skills for Birmingham report, entitled Educating An Employable Generation For Birmingham, calls for a curriculum tailored to business needs, guides to help pupils into growth industries and an online portal to encourage partnerships between schools and the private sector.
The Skills For Birmingham project is funded by Ms Maclean’s business Packt Publishing, which employs 40 staff in IT publishing.
She said: “As a small employer its very difficult to get on the radar of universities.
“It’s the small businesses that are creating the jobs. If we go to a graduate recruitment conference it’s not a very good use of our time, we have to give up our whole day.
“I’ve tried a few times to open up communications with local universities without much success. Jaguar Land Rover and Cadbury probably don’t have any problems attracting graduates, but small businesses have.
“Employees get much more involved in a small business. Germany and other countries do it better.
“CBI Employability Skills is a very good framework, things every business will be looking for in some way or another.”
Ms Hendry, from Key Personnel, said that there has been a focus in recent years that has suggested that “bigger is better”.
She told the round table event: “The experiences are very different in a small business, you are exposed to many different things, you get to be very agile.
“Some people are better suited to a bigger more structured programme.
“Universities have leaned towards the bigger companies rather than the SMEs as the graduate programmes are better, but that isn’t always the case.
“Management training is about a really good framework and training development.
“We supply talent to different organisations and what each is saying is that basic skills like grammar, spelling and soft skills are not good.
“We focused too much on technical ability but we’ve lost sight of the skills you need in business every day.
“Common Purpose is a leadership and development programme for middle management and above, where you could be in JLR one day and visiting a prison the next.
“You could be in Two Sisters one day and Key Personel later in the week and Birmingham Library the next.
“For years as a business we’ve been quite divorced from academia so it’s really refreshing to hear this kind of conversation.”
Ms Chambers, from Two Sisters, added: “There’s the assumption already that they have those skills.
“They may be one of the best students but they’re not putting themselves across in the workplace.
“We have seen the power of a peer group. When you talk about the graduate recruits in Barclays and JLR, you’re creating a peer group within that company. I wonder in some organisations whether they could do some work to create a peer group within the organisation.”
Getting young people ready for work has been a central feature of a CBI campaign.
The lobby group said it was “calling for action to smooth the chaotic transition from school to work by strengthening links between businesses and schools and building on successful schemes that are proven to work”.
Its proposals include:
* Supporting a national roll-out of successful existing school-business engagement initiatives with a new ‘Employability School’ standard.
* Putting in place a network of local business people to act as champions, developing school-business links in each local area.
* Stepping up businesses’ commitment to providing high-quality meaningful work experience.
Mr Dickin, from CADCAM software firm Delcam, said the environment for attracting staff had improved in recent years.
However, the firm has some concerns about the availability of skills, with Jaguar Land Rover’s growth in the region.
“The type of people we’re looking for are programmers,” Mr Dickin said.
“That’s got slightly easier with the financial crash. Before that it was difficult as most people coming through went straight into the City of London.
“The area we are struggling in now is on the engineering side. The downside of the success of Jaguar Land Rover and Rolls Royce is that they’re getting all the talent in the region.
“i54 is good for employment in the area but it’s difficult for the small employees because they have to retain talent.
“The real crisis has just about been averted. People in their late 40s early 50s are staying on for the next five to ten years. If the crisis had gone on longer there wouldn’t be any people left to train the next generation. Because of the success of JLR and Rolls Royce people are seeing engineering much more as a valuable career path. Students used to be warned that if they didn’t work hard enough they’d end up working in a factory. The average teacher hasn’t been into a factory for 30 years.
“The positive side of this in Birmingham is that youngsters think, ‘if I work hard and if I do engineering or maths I can get a job in Jaguar Land Rover on decent money’.
“At Delcam we take on about 25 to 30 graduates a year.
“China and India are producing many more engineers than the UK and most of those will be working in those countries. In areas of expertise in the UK, like aerospace and pharmaceuticals, to make sure we remain competitive we must have those talents. It’s all very well having the top tier of engineers, you have to be able to manage them.”
Mr Chatwin, from Centro, said: “People are coming out with really good technical skills but it’s then that awareness of what work is like.
“Employers are looking for skills which make that transition so much easier.
“The most important thing for any new recruit is how they get on the with existing staff. If they upset the whole of the team that is not just one person who is effected, it’s ten.”