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Mend the gap: What one thing would you do to close the skills gap by 2025?

City & Guilds, in partnership with the New Statesman, brought industry and academia together and asked, what one thing would you do to close the skills gap by 2025?

In 2013, just under 150,000 vacancies – equivalent to one in five of the job openings that year – went unfilled. Why? Because employers could not find candidates with the right knowledge and abilities. The figure, drawn from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, encapsulates the challenge facing government, education and industry, and to underscore the point, almost a million young people are out of work in Britain. At the same time, 27 per cent of European employers report leaving an entry-level position open due to a lack of skilled applicants.

To discuss this dilemma and in an effort to produce some practical solutions, City & Guilds (in partnership with the New Statesman) invited leading voices from industry and academia to a skills symposium and asked them to address this overarching question: “What one thing would you do, or suggest, in order to close the skills gap by 2025?”

In her capacity as president of City & Guilds, HRH the Princess Royal opened up the discussion and observed: “Any society must understand the dichotomy between what education thinks is necessary in terms of high academic standards and what is going to be most useful to those involved in employing people.”

Weaving through any discussion of this kind are four interlinked issues. One is the impact of technology, both as an enabler of new skills and as an inhibitor of job creation. Then there are the twin demographic realities of youth unemployment and an ageing population. Finally, there is an ongoing disparity of opportunity between the sexes.

Offering up the first solution of the day, William Akerman, managing director of MyKindaCrowd, said it was time to transform the old careers adviser into a “world of work curator”, someone who could liaise with companies, understand the changing working environment and connect students with the workplace. “The traditional model of the careers adviser is pretty much redundant,” Akerman said, arguing that the work curator would provide a link between work and education. “If you teach maths in exactly the same way, you are going to get exactly the same outcomes. Whereas, if you match industry with the subject and engage companies in the process of delivery, all of a sudden it has a relevance, it has a meaning, it has a destination.”

The need to adapt to a changing working environment proved to be a recurring theme. Ann Brown, senior vice-president for HR at Capgemini, the IT services company, recommended reintroducing work experience for teachers. “I see teachers go to school, university and then back to school. And I’d love them to come out to our organisation and work alongside apprentices and graduates, and say, ‘So this is what the world of work is like.’” Brown pointed out that half the people at Capgemini are working in technology areas – big data and cloud computing, for example – that did not exist five years ago. “It’s about lifetime skills and lifetime training. It’s not just a point-in-time exercise.”

Carly Ward, founder of YES Education and The Entrepreneurial Education Group, argued that schools required an injection of entrepreneurialism and not just among the students. She said: “We need to start with the teachers because you are never going to get employability and entrepreneurial skills in the curriculum [otherwise].” Entrepreneurial skills, Ward said, are not just about starting a business. “They are transferable to everything a young person decides to do . . . self-belief, goal-setting, confidence-building, making decisions, and interview skills.”

It was a view echoed by Steve Holliday, chief executive of National Grid. “Entrepreneurship is not just for entrepreneurs,” Holliday said. Picking up on previous themes, he recommended: “Every secondary school teacher should have responsibility for careers, not a careers master. Every teacher should go out into the workplace for a week every year . . . If you do not go out for three years, guess what, you are going to be very out of date very quickly.”

Professor Dame Julia Higgins, senior research investigator in the Department of Chemical Engineering, Imperial College London, and a vice-president of City & Guilds, added: “If we are expecting teachers to keep up with changes in technology, changes in the science and the maths they are teaching, they have to have subjectspecific continuous professional training. And in my view it has to be mandatory, and career progression has to depend on it.”

Higgins added that schools and colleges needed to change their accountability measures. “If you want entrepreneurial skills you are going to have to think of a way of measuring it.”

Chris Jones, chief executive of City & Guilds, said the challenge was to “break that dominant logic about what it is we would want to have in place that allows someone to be able to demonstrate competence, passion, ability, talent and motivation”. He argued that a system defined by GCSEs or A-levels “is becoming almost outdated”.

Brown also urged a change in the way schools are evaluated, in order “to have more focus on employability”, while City & Guilds’s group strategy director, Philip Ellaway, said: “Don’t tell schools how to do it but measure the fact that they do do it.”

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), suggested that part of the solution was “to make schools accountable for young people’s awareness and attitudes to work and education”. He said if that is to happen, schools need to rid themselves of their obsession with Ofsted.

He continued: “The RSA started a piece of development work around year 7/8 to find a diagnostic tool which enables us to understand the way in which 13-year-olds are starting to close down choices in their lives. They are starting to say, ‘I’m no good at science’ or ‘I’ll never go to university’, or equally, ‘I’ve got to go to university even though I would actually quite like to do something more vocational.’” Such a tool, said Taylor, would help young people to “have higher expectations . . . and just a more realistic understanding of their choices”.

For Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group of further education (FE) colleges, the answer to the skills crisis is “to reinvent, reconfigure and liberate the skills system. And I’m talking about every bit of it – supply, demand, qualification, role of employers and educational institutions.”

Meanwhile, Anne-Marie Imafidon’s central concern was the lack of female representation in science, technology, engineering and maths, the so-called Stem subjects. Imafidon, who works for Deutsche Bank and founded an organisation called Stemettes, exposing women to Stem subjects, pointed out that of all the people employed in these areas only 13 per cent were women.

Her solution is to “improve the messaging we have around Stem”. She said: “Today it is very much about the whiz, the bang, the fast cars, but a lot of Stem is about solving problems and creativity.” When people think of scientists, engineers and those successful in the world of technology, they think about Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, Imafidon pointed out, rather than the likes of Roma Agrawal, the award-winning structural Steve Holliday Chief executive, National Grid Anne-Marie Imafidon Founder, Stemettes Chris Jones Chief executive, City & Guilds Dame Asha Khemka Principal, West Nottinghamshire College Lynne Sedgmore Executive director, 157 Group Matthew Taylor Chief executive, Royal Society of Arts Carly Ward Founder and chief executive, YES Education engineer who worked on the Shard tower in London.

For Dame Asha Khemka, principal and chief executive of West Nottinghamshire College, the answer to solving the skills crisis came down to leadership. “We need to make sure we have the right leadership at the local level where there is enough flexibility and enough imagination to make sure that people are being trained, educated and developed in the right way,” she said.

She added: “We have an issue in our country that graduates are not employable. What about making industrial placement or work experience a mandatory part of our FE programmes?”

Drawing the debate to a close, Sir John Armitt, chairman of City & Guilds, observed that employability is essential for an individual to become a “fully involved” citizen. “Education should be about getting people to a point where they are going to make a real contribution to society, and that must mean a closer linkage between the education system and subsequent life.”

The City & Guilds Skills Symposium, in partnership with the New Statesman, took place on 1 April 2014 at the House of St Barnabas, London W1

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

Flickr/Zappys Technology Solutions
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Is "successful" sperm really the measure of a man's masculinity?

An advertising campaign challenging men to "prove your worth" is being proposed to increase dwindling numbers of sperm donors – will the myth that only "real" men have potent sperm ever die?

Are you a superman? By which I mean, do you have the kind of sperm that would be accepted by the UK Sperm Bank, currently stuck with only nine donors on the books? Laura Witjens, chief executive, is currently launching a drive to recruit more donors. Her secret weapon? An appeal to male vanity.

Speaking to the Guardian, Witjens claims that if she advertised saying, “Men, prove your worth, show me how good you are”, it would be a route to gaining “hundreds of donors”. The implication is that beta males need not apply; this is for “real” men only. And what better way to demonstrate one’s manly credentials than through the spreading of one’s super-strength, 100 per cent proof, ultra-potent seed?

The proposed campaign approach serves to remind us of two things: first, the male ego is ridiculous, and second, reproductive ability is still treated as an indicator of whether or not one is a “successful” representative of one’s sex. However much we claim that biology is no longer destiny, certain expectations linger. “Real men” have high-quality sperm and want to see it distributed as widely as possible. “Real women,” on the other hand, only end up unable to reproduce if they have “left it too late” (that is, spent too much time in what is still seen as the world of men).

That fertility is primarily linked to luck rather than sexist morality tales is something we’d rather not admit. After all, far too many cultural edifices have been built around the idea that the opposite is true.

For something that resembles runny PVA glue, sperm has done well for itself. Throughout history, men have been obsessed with their precious seed and what it means for their status as the dominant sex. Since it is women who get pregnant – women who perform the actual task of gestating and birthing new human beings – there has always been a need to inflate the importance of semen, lest men should be sidelined completely. Whereas for women reproduction is a continuous process, for men it is more disjointed and conceptual. Hence it is important to have something to rely on. In sperm we trust.  

Otherwise can a man ever be sure – really, really sure – that a baby is his? For biological mothers, maternity is never in question. For biological fathers, paternity needs to be established. There are various ways of achieving this: heterosexual marriage, compulsory monogamy, the policing of women’s sexual choices, the withholding of material resources from women in return for sexual exclusivity, the threat of an appearance on Jeremy Kyle.

And then there are the various myths regarding how magical and special your own sperm is. It had to be you, didn’t it? He shoots, he scores. How else would the phrase “Who’s the Daddy?” have come into its current usage? The “skill” of impregnation is linked to manliness. If you’re a real man, the implication is, then you’ve nothing to fear.

The “superman” theme proposed by Witjens harks back to the various ways in which men have sought to position themselves and their sperm right at the centre of human reproduction, believing, for instance, that it already contained human beings in miniature, or that women merely provided the passive matter that would bring their active principle to life.

The biology I learned at school still played on the narrative of the hardy, valiant sperm battling against all odds to reach the passive, if somewhat capricious, egg. Sex education met gender indoctrination; it even seemed to be implied that the egg, in closing off entry to all other sperm once the “victor” had penetrated her boundaries, was being a bit of a tease (she’d already set off down the fallopian tube, what did she expect?). Pregnancy itself, we were led to believe, could never match the creativity, risk and drama of that one initial shag.

To respond to such myth-making with “but it’s only sperm and actually it could be anyone’s” seems positively mean. Women are supposed to worship it. Our effluvia – vaginal discharge, menstrual blood, breast milk – might be seen as disgusting, but when it comes to a man’s cum, it’s considered rude not to want to swallow it. People who respond with outrage when a woman suckles her baby in a crowded café think nothing of the idea that a real woman should want to gulp down semen with gusto. Patriarchal semiotics tell us that what comes out of men is life-giving and hygienic; women, on the other hand – popping out babies and sustenance – merely leak. It takes a brave woman to say, “hang on, is semen really all that?”

In the UK at least, it would seem that it isn’t. According to Witjens, getting one’s sperm approved for the UK Sperm Bank is exceptionally difficult because of how strong the product needs to be to survive the freezing and thawing process: “If 100 guys enquire, ten will come through for screenings and maybe one becomes a donor. It takes hundreds of guys.” Meaning most men don’t actually measure up to “superman” standards (without even considering what this approach says to men with a low sperm count, of whom it is suggested that the manhood test has been well and truly failed).

Her advertising strategy may be one that works. But it would be nice if, in a society that increasingly favours a politics of acquisition over one of care, we could be a little less focused on the potency of the mighty seed, looking instead at this particular form of donation as part of a broader process of creating and caring for others. Perhaps appeals to male vanity just work better than appeals to altruism. Even so, it’s a pity that it has to be so.

The aftermath of sperm donation can be complicated. Once one gets beyond the cash and the ego trips, the process can lead to real children with a real need to know the identity of the donor. Whereas in the past social convention allowed men to define ownership of children on their terms, nowadays globalisation and reproductive technology have led to a splintering of roles. Is it care or biology that makes a parent? What is it that shapes an identity and makes a person?

For most of us, the humane position is that nurture – the act of being there – must trump any biological contribution. To think otherwise is unfair on those who devote years of their lives to the raising of children. But for many donor-conceived adults, the donor is still needed to complete the picture of who one really is. And he will not be a superman. He will be a person who gave something small that nevertheless contributed to the creation of something miraculous: a life. And shouldn’t that be enough?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.