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Advertorial: in association with Impetus

The hard truth about soft skills

A holistic approach to learning could unlock new opportunities.

By Ayesha Baloch

Keir Starmer has promised “a new direction on skills”, to be delivered through a new generation of technical excellence colleges which specialise in the high-growth skills needed to drive the economy. But a narrow focus on hard skills alone risks ignoring what makes a person employable, and as a result, risks overlooking the young people who could benefit from these new opportunities the most.

In 2023, youth unemployment rose by 1.7 per cent. Currently, there are around 800,000 young people across the UK who are neither learning, nor earning. We are sitting on a gold mine of human potential. One that could not only transform young people’s prospects, but also our communities and the future of the economy. At Impetus we believe that all young people deserve to succeed in school and in work, whatever their background. For more than 20 years, we have been supporting charities which pioneer innovative solutions to support young people to fulfil their potential.

We do this because we know that too many young people are being let down and left behind. Our groundbreaking Youth Jobs Gap research found that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are 50 per cent more likely to not be in education, employment or training (NEET) than those from more well-off backgrounds who share the same qualifications. Decision-makers are all too aware of the implications of youth unemployment, but whether it’s green, digital, or precision welding, too often the conversation around skills assumes that the skills needed to do the job are the only ones that matter.

Our research demonstrates that improving technical skills alone is not enough. To set these young people up for success we must take a broader view. What are commonly referred to as soft skills, we instead call “essential skills”. These include speaking and listening, problem solving and teamwork, and they play an essential role in determining employability. But access to these skills isn’t fairly distributed. Research from the charity Skills Builder found that students eligible for free school meals (FSMs) score lower on essential skills tests than their non-FSM-eligible peers. In particular, students in alternative provision scored less than half as well on average.

Where a young person’s circumstances mean that they miss out on these skills, it can undermine confidence, well-being and productivity, as well as shutting them out of a competitive job market. So, what if we reimagined our approach to skills? What if, rather than focusing on technical skills alone, we instead put greater value on supporting individuals to be job-ready through a wider set of essential skills? At Impetus we work in partnership to understand the challenges and support solutions that have real impact, recognising that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have additional barriers to overcome in order to access sustained and meaningful employment.

We’re especially proud of our ongoing partnership with Resurgo, an organisation which has grown bigger and more impactful since partnering with us in 2010. Resurgo’s Spear programme helps 16-24-year-olds realise their potential by equipping them with the confidence, motivation and skills they need to succeed in long-term employment.

According to the Department for Work and Pensions’ Employment Data Lab, which assesses the impact of employment-related interventions by evaluating the outcomes of participants, Spear is one of the best-evidenced employment interventions in the country. Its report found that the Spear programme increases participants’ employment outcomes and reduces by 20 per cent their chances of becoming NEET one year after the programme.

This means that if all young people who are NEET received support as effective as Resurgo’s programme, we could reduce the number of young people who are NEET by over 130,000 and fill over 10 per cent of the vacancies in the economy, delivering a huge boost to business, communities and young people themselves. The success of Resurgo’s programme proves that, ultimately, having the skills to do a job is not enough.

Young people need to learn the skills to work. It is no secret that the UK needs to kick-start economic growth. By putting essential skills front and centre on the agenda, we have the opportunity not only to address our economic challenge, but to channel our focus to reach those furthest from the labour market. By putting in place the support to learn the skills for the job with the skills to work, we can steward a generation of young people towards meaningful sustained employment: good news for individuals, good news for communities and good news for the bottom line.

This article first appeared in our print Spotlight report on Skills, published on 2 February 2024.

[See also: Why we need a national employment service]

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