As young people struggle to enter the labour market, colleges and other providers are doing all they can to help their students become more employable. But what if the employers won’t play ball?

Furious debate continues around what triggered the summer riots and how to prevent further unrest – too often generating more heat than light. Meanwhile, evidence of how to create the necessary new social networks and pathways for young people at risk of disengagement has seemed beyond our reach – until now. Through recent partnership work where we have effectively handed control over to the young people to find or create their own work experience, I would argue that Lambeth College has cracked it.

if learners come from an area with the stereotype of gangs and worklessness, they will be assumed to have low employability skills.”

Our work shows that progress cannot be made without working with other organisations, taking a new approach which is about much more than qualifications. It also shows that the problems are not all with the young people – employers themselves are woefully lacking in those essential social networks and pathways.

For many years the emphasis has been on getting a better qualified workforce and millions of learners at all ages now have certificates which recognise their skills. But this is not enough: research among employers showed us that they also want evidence of “employability”, by which they mean having the drive to succeed, the persistence to get the job done and being able to relate well to other people.

But while they are prepared to take a degree as proxy for these characteristics, they do not see the same qualities in an FE qualification; so our challenge was to give employers evidence that our young people can hold down a job. Using a small grant from the Learning and Skills Improvement Service, we joined in a project with Participle, the third sector organisation which works with socially excluded adults who have difficulty finding work. They had found that it was not always lack of qualifications that prevented adults from getting employment but lack of useful social networks.

People who come from families with few social contacts and little experience of employment are not likely to be familiar with the skills and attitudes expected in the workplace. Similarly, students from areas of high unemployment and social exclusion, and who have had very little work experience, will also find it more difficult to become familiar with employability skills. Moreover, they may have the added burden of being judged by their postcode: if they come from an area with the stereotype of gangs and worklessness, they will be assumed to have low employability skills.

The FE sector could be doing a lot more to help local business.”

Our students needed a transforming experience that went outside the classroom to develop their skills and attitudes and show them new ways to contribute to their own success. Groups of BTEC students were set a challenge to design a project that would spend up to £1000 on getting their own work experience.

After four weeks each team had to present their scheme to representatives of the College and Participle and the winners would get the cash to put their ideas into practice. For example, a group of Health and Social Care students saw the opportunity to improve their own chance of employment while designing a process that could exist beyond their time at college. They set up a database of local employers willing to offer “bite-size” work experience opportunities and showed how this could be linked to a range of resources to include a text alert service, social networking to promote work experience, career events and open days.

The students were overwhelmed by the positive response from many employers, who were impressed by their enterprising attitude and were keen to give encouragement. The students also recognised the effects that being forced to go outside their comfort zone and work with people outside the college had had in building their own self-confidence. One told me: “I am usually very shy but I know now, thanks to the challenge, that I can do things I never thought I was capable of.”

And this work revealed something else about local employers that really gave us food for thought. Just as local jobseekers suffered from poor social networks, so did many small businesses. Family enterprises with little understanding of how to market their business and recruit the people they needed failed to thrive and often collapsed when the original owner retired. However good our students’ employability skills become, they will not get jobs unless local enterprises prosper.

The FE sector could be doing a lot more to help local business. Talking to employers showed that we are a trusted institution and we could become a place where people go to get a lot more than qualifications. As both local and central government become commissioners rather than suppliers of services, colleges could become a hub for local businesses where they can build networks, develop their skills, thrive and provide employment opportunities for their communities.

Richard Chambers is the recently retired Principal of Lambeth College