The FE sector and business are failing to lay the foundations for tomorrow’s innovative workforce, says Sandra O’Neill.

Too many young people are leaving college without the knowledge, awareness and aptitude for business and entrepreneurialism that is vital to employers and to creating the future business leaders that our economy needs.

As the first cohort of students come to the end of the first year of a university education that will set them back little short of £9,000 a year, it is no surprise that applications for places have begun to dip.

Most of those who do graduate from an English university in two years’ time will have debts of £40,000 or more.

So, with larger numbers of young people than ever leaving college to take their chances in the jobs market, it becomes increasingly vital that we address the failure of a system that does not value, and fails to nurture, innovation, entrepreneurialism and employability.

The 250,000 16 to 24-year-olds who have been out of work for a year, along with the one-in-five young people currently unemployed, are a stark reminder of the urgency of the situation.
It’s an issue in which, as a business adviser and accountant, Grant Thornton takes a keen interest.

A report we commissioned in 2010 found that the lack of collaboration between business and education is hampering the UK’s ability to compete globally when it comes to innovation and entrepreneurship.
And it’s having an equally profound and negative impact on young people’s life chances as they emerge from education ill equipped and ill-informed about business.

In Yorkshire we are piloting a scheme — Educate to Innovate — that brings colleges, schools and businesses together with the aim of instilling in young people an interest and an enthusiasm for business that’s not being provided by the exam results-orientated curriculum of A-levels and BTec.

We have discovered a synergy and an energy between young people — full of curiosity and brimming with new ideas — and entrepreneurs, whose lifeblood is new ideas and innovation.

The Umph! business and enterprise competition we hold every summer brings 16 to 19-year-olds from across Yorkshire together with some of the region’s most inspiring entrepreneurs.

The results and feedback from the entrepreneurs, the students and their teachers are electric. Last year, students’ comments ranged from “totally awesome and inspiring” to “it gave me my first proper insight into what business is actually all about, and helped me to understand that it was something I could actually do”.

Yet despite the resoundingly positive feedback, most FE students have limited chances to meet and learn from business people.

Colleges are channelled relentlessly by results-orientated league tables and the constricting demands of academic achievement.

More enlightened colleges, or those with the resources to do so, employ a business liaison officer to create opportunities for businesses to work more closely with their college.

But such roles are few and far between, and most young people continue to leave education with little or no understanding of the skills needed for work, let alone those required to make it as an entrepreneur.

Our Educate to Innovate programme barely scratches the surface, but it does make it clear that there needs to be a change of attitude in colleges and schools across the country, with the crucial participation of business.

If we do nothing, we risk short-changing the workforce of tomorrow, and severely hampering the British economy in the process.

Sandra O’Neill, head of business development at Grant Thornton, Yorkshire