Employer buy-in is only going to get more important as T-levels arrive, and Mike Cherry has some advice for colleges that want to engage more small businesses to help out on skills

Investing in our young people and supporting them to move into work is a topic that I care very much about, both in my capacity as national chairman of FSB and personally as a small business owner. I am passionate about helping small businesses flourish, and nurturing the skills of the next generation. This is why Young Enterprise has been FSB’s chosen charity for over five years and why we are supporting the government’s opportunity areas initiative.

The last few years have seen many changes to education and training in England.

One of the most fundamental shifts has been the movement toward a skills system that is increasingly employer-driven in an attempt to better meet the needs of business. Whether you’re an advocate or sceptic of this approach, it has placed greater emphasis on the role of business in educating and preparing young people to make decisions about their pathway into work.

Although 82 per cent of small firms agree they should be involved in careers education activities, over half of business owners have never engaged

But beyond this, fostering better links between business and education is crucial if we are to address troubling skills shortages that many small businesses are facing.

Our own research has found that a third of business owners who have attempted to recruit in the last 12 months have been unable to find the individuals they’re looking for. This is particularly the case in skilled trades, which is worrying given that our members tell us that technical skills are the most important skillset for growth.

I am proud of the fact that many small businesses are already actively involved with schools, colleges and universities. They are participating in careers and apprenticeship fairs, workshops and providing opportunities for students to experience and understand the world of work. In Kent, over 400 students and small businesses have taken part in Skills 3030 workshops – a two-hour event involving facilitated “speed networking”, employment-related workshops and inspiring stories from entrepreneurs.

However, by their very nature, small business owners are time and resource poor – factors that can inhibit this engagement. Although 82 per cent of small firms agree they should be involved in careers education activities, over half of business owners have never engaged with a school or college.

Of course, the introduction of T-levels and apprenticeships, for example, will pave the way for more students to experience the workplace first-hand – many in local small firms – but we need to keep looking for ways to achieve a greater impact for all young people, in all routes.

Small firms want to help, but educators need to take the lead and follow a few golden rules to successful engagement. Firstly, SMEs provide clear information about participation in careers activities. Over a third said better guidance on how to get involved would get them more involved.

Secondly, try to ensure that the business has a consistent point of contact in the college.

Thirdly, once a relationship is established with a business, prioritise maintaining and nurturing it.

Many small firms we’ve spoken to have been involved in a careers fair, never to be approached by the college again. Finally, don’t forget to approach small business owners to educate young people about self-employment and entrepreneurship.

Our small businesses are lynchpins of their communities, recognisable faces on our high streets, and employers of local people. They understand the value of giving back, providing opportunities and inspiring young people in education.

However, I’ve found that the benefits work both ways – over half of small firms believe that improving their involvement with their local college would have a positive effect on their perception of the skills and aspirations of young people, which can only be a good thing.

There are clear gains to be had on both sides, but my opinion is that the success of business and education engagement depends on strong leadership, clear communication and effective resourcing by the education sector.

This can only be achieved with sustained support from government. The careers strategy was a step in the right direction, but time will tell as to how effective it proves to be.

Mike Cherry is chair of the Federation of Small Businesses