The importance of experience

A recent study published by the Federation of Small Businesses raised a number of concerns from the UK SME community around the employability of school leavers and the lack of certain skills in the current talent pool.

Alastair MitchellSome of the skills identified by businesses as lacking in the current crop of young employees are applicable to all work environments and not limited to specific sectors and include things like a lack of business awareness and poor communication and team working skills.

The FSB has called for the introduction of “work related learning” to the curriculum, but there is another option which would give young people valuable experience in the working world and opportunities to develop the skills small businesses need – the Saturday job.

For many people the Saturday job is seen as a right of passage that not only puts cash in your pocket but provides vital work experience, however for many young people – the opportunities simply don’t exist anymore.

Recent research from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills released figures that made it clear how challenging it is for school leavers to get jobs now, particularly 16-17 years.

The number of teenagers combining part-time jobs with school or college has fallen from 40% 15 years ago to approximately 20% now. Driven by a combination of increasing expectations that young people should remain in education and the impact of the current economic climate, the report highlights that 260,000 teenagers have a Saturday job today compared with 435,000 in 1997.

Youth unemployment is a major issue globally, and the UK is no exception. The challenge for young people today is that many employers won’t even contemplate hiring them for a full-time position unless they have some form of proven experience in a work environment. That’s why the Saturday job – something that many of us took for granted during our time – is so important.

My own experience

I began my career when I was 16 working at an independent bookshop in Brentswood every Saturday. I was responsible for manning the till and helping customers find the particular books they were after. I can honestly say that I really enjoyed my time there and the basic work skills I learned put me in good stead for future roles.

Before I went to University, and during the summer holidays when I was back home, I worked at Marks and Spencer’s. My role there was split between helping customers in the store and stock control in the warehouse. As a shopper I could instantly relate to my in-store role, but it was helping in the warehouse that I found most interesting as it was a totally different environment that provided different skills – including the ability to be fully functional at 5.30am!

Gradually I gravitated towards finance and accounts. It was an area I was interested in exploring as a potential career, so whilst I was at university I sort out a summer job at a local accountants. It gave me a real insight into what a career in the profession would be like, tested my ability to work with numbers and enabled me to learn about accounting and incomplete records. At the end of it, I knew I’d found my calling.

On leaving university, I went straight into a job and have never been out of work. I see my part-time jobs having played a significant part in getting me off on the right foot. It’s the transferable skills that Saturday roles provide that make them so important:

  • Punctuality
  • Communication skills
  • Customer service
  • Responsibility
  • Ability to work in a team
  • How businesses work
  • The value of money
  • Time management

Standing apart

In highly competitive industries relevant experience sets candidates apart. But more than that, it shows a real desire from the candidate to break into that industry and the right sort of attitude and initiative that it will take to succeed.

Where ever possible I would advise people not to work for free. However, to get that vital first experience and demonstrate commitment a profession it may be required for a very limited period. But that is a choice for the individual, and is simply not an option for everyone.

But it’s not just in business that experience is vital. My son recently secured a place to study medicine at university and despite having the necessary grades, it was only because he also had relevant experience as well that he was selected for one of the places.

Working with business

There is a fantastic opportunity for small businesses to tap into the expertise and enthusiasm of young people and strike up a mutually beneficial relationship. If you’re interested in launching an app for your business or updating your website, you should contact your local college or school and ask if anyone would like to work on it for the experience.  These are areas that people want to get experience in and the chance to work on a live brief would make a real addition to any CV.

If there are any small business owners reading this and considering whether to make a part-time role available, my advice would be go for it! You will get a highly committed and enthusiastic person to work for your business and the experience for that person will be vital.

Alastair Mitchell, Financial Director Sage UK