Skills training will future-proof young Londoners

Anahitha Vijay’s prospects for the future are as golden as the WorldSkills UK medal displayed in the living room of her Enfield home.

When the north Londoner started computer studies lessons in Year 7, she never dreamed that her growing enthusiasm for the subject would lead six years later to triumph in the skills organisation’s national Cyber Security competition.

Over an intensive two days of code-breaking and hacking to expose IT network weaknesses, Anahitha and her partner knew they had done well but bagging the top spot left her in “absolute shock”.

It also opened doors: “I applied for an internship at Google last summer and I’m pretty sure that being able to say I’d won a gold medal in a national cyber security competition stood out on my CV,” says Anahitha, who is studying the subject at Warwick University.

Anahitha Vijay


A prosperous career is on the cards. Cyber security is a growth sector; demand for security specialists jumped 58 per cent between 2020 and 2021, according to a recent government report. Entry level cyber intelligence officers can expect a starting salary of more than £30,000.

But while opportunities in IT, and the host of other industries that have made London a leading global city, might be booming, employers are struggling to find candidates with the right skills.

According to a range of experts in education, training and business gathered for the Evening Standard and WorldSkills UK forum event last week, the skills gap in industries such as finance, green and life sciences, IT and building and construction is a threat to future growth. Too many young people are either unaware of new and exciting opportunities or don’t have the CVs to seize them.

“There’s a great big gap in terms of digital skills and STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths); that’s well known,” says Jenny Taylor, UK graduate, apprenticeship and student programmes leader with tech giant IBM, which has launched its own range of free online technical skills badges.

“What I see are digital apprenticeships being used across all sectors. Technical education is not just needed by the big tech companies, it is needed in the health industry, retail, banking, and the public sector,” she says. “The need for digital and STEM skills is everywhere and certainly in London because all those industries are here.”

A WorldSkills UK competitor


For young people who are trying to decide what steps to take at 16 and 18, skills development is becoming at least as important as the qualifications they will go on to achieve. Research by LinkedIn shows that employers are increasingly adopting a “skills-first” hiring approach, with more than 40 per cent of recruiters on the employment-based social media platform explicitly using skills data to fill their roles.

In this climate, a number of factors are converging to change the mindset that staying on at sixth form and going to university is the only game in town for aspiring teenagers, while technical routes are a second-class option.

The cost of university tuition fees and maintenance loans, which leave young people saddled with a mountain of debt, are giving families pause for thought, particularly in the current cost of living crisis.

Lord Blunkett at the Evening Standard and WorldSkills UK Skills Forum

/ Lucy Young

More people are questioning whether university is worth it when prestigious companies are advertising apprenticeships for school leavers and applied skills, particularly digital acumen, are increasingly prized by employers.

On top of this, giving teenagers a clearer picture of the alternatives to academic study is now a legal duty. Ofsted has been told to check that work experience and opportunities to meet employers are hard-baked into the school curriculum.

At the same time, further education colleges are investing to try to future-proof their students. A new technical college in Lambeth, part of South Bank Colleges, for instance, is inspiring young people with a vocational and technical curriculum in a state-of the-art workplace environment.

But there are challenges. Big employers have the capacity to work with schools and colleges and run apprenticeships – pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca now offers 300 apprenticeships, up from about 80 a few years ago – but small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) have fewer resources and are less likely to make links.

London is a leading global city and needs world-class skills to remain internationally competitive

New City College Corporation, with campuses in Epping, Hackney, Redbridge, Tower Hamlets & Havering, works with a range of dedicated big employers. But its group executive director Jamie Stevenson points out that 80 per cent of London’s employers are SMEs. Harnessing their involvement is crucial, particularly to the Government’s new T-level courses, which have a mandatory work experience element.

Colleges are also worried about how they will recruit the next generation of specialist tutors to teach courses when they can earn so much more in industry. The FE sector is being asked to deliver a technical skills revolution against a backdrop of funding cuts that has left it characterised as a “Cinderella sector” compared to schools and universities.

“We are all fishing in the same pool of technical experts to teach these skills,” says Jo Withers, Harrow College principal, Harrow, Richmond and Uxbridge Colleges. “And it is a limited pool.”

Fiona Morey, executive principal at South Bank Colleges, makes a similar point: “A student doing a Level 1 or 2 qualification in bricklaying will leave and within a few months they will be earning more than the person who taught them. How do you sustain that? We absolutely have to invest in staff. Without that, we are not going to provide what our young people deserve.”

According to Lord Blunkett, former education and home secretary and chairman of the Heathrow Local Recovery Forum, London is brilliantly placed to lead the UKs skills revolution but there needs to be a plan to “skill the skillers”.

“How can you train the people in FE and independent providers to do that job and how do you hold on to them, a particular problem in London with cost of living and house prices?” he says.

Ensuring young people have developed the “soft skills” that are essential to success at work is also a focus in colleges. Cohorts of pupils hit by pandemic lockdowns have missed out on so much of the socialising, work experience and extra-curricular activities that build character and resilience.

When students are nurtured by an interested employer, they absolutely blossom

“Young people have to develop those behaviours,” says Pablo Lloyd, interim CEO of Capital City College Group. “They have to be able to work in a team, present a proposal, accept feedback and know what to do with it.”

Research by World Skills UK with its partners across the globe reveals similar concerns, says deputy CEO Ben Blackledge. Employers are looking for young people with the ability to learn, to flex and to deal with setbacks, the kind of characteristics that World Skills competitions help young people develop and demonstrate in a risk-free environment.

At Capital City College Group, employer links have led to mentoring programmes that can make all the difference.

“Providing that one-to-one support to young people, especially if the mentor is only four or five years ahead of the student, is where it works best,” says Lloyd. “It doesn’t take a huge investment on the part of the employer – a few hours a month is all it takes – and we are finding employers more receptive to the idea of mentoring than in the past.”

In a similar vein, work experience can be a game changer for students and the plea from both schools and colleges is for more employers to get involved.

We have the future workforce within the fabric of our buildings

“When students are nurtured by an interested employer, they absolutely blossom,” says Peter-Mayhew Smith, group principal and CEO of South Thames College Group. “Some of these students might have done quite badly in school with an academic curriculum, but here is someone wonderful to show them they can be a skilled, capable person. Workplace partnerships can be transformative for some of those young people and many say work experience is the best bit of the course.”

For parents and teens, the range of choices at 16 and 18 has never been wider and that can be daunting. Louse Wolsey, group chief strategy officer with London & South East Education Group, advocates building networks for tech and STEM to promote them to parents. Technical and vocational pathways that have clear links to employers and industry can help reassure families that their teenagers are making the right move.

“We have the future workforce within the fabric of our buildings,” says Withers, from Harrow College. “If we develop them together, working with employers right from the start to develop those technical and softer skills to create that pipeline, then actually those students will be able to fill those vacancies immediately.”

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