Just a few weeks back, young people across Scotland received their Higher and National Qualification results in a year like no other. There were record rises in the highest grades, with teachers having to make assessments of each pupil given that exams were just not possible this year once again.
Whatever the rights or wrongs – and there can be no perfect way to assess in a global pandemic – we have to congratulate students after many years of hard work. We’ve all had tough times over the last 18 months, but school children have had some of the toughest of all, with their lives turned upside down at a critical time for their own development.
Regardless of the outcome for each pupil – not everyone will have got the results they hoped for, of course – they should remember that qualifications are just one of the factors employers look at when recruiting. Businesses value the resilience students have demonstrated throughout the pandemic enormously, alongside skills like creativity, communication, leadership and teamwork.
Many young people will have been spending the weeks and months since to consider, ‘what next?’. Many will go onto university, further education or perhaps straight into the workplace. Whatever route they choose, Scottish businesses are committed to helping young people get ready for the world of work – be it through work placements, apprenticeships, or first jobs. Universities will similarly be working hard to support students, helping them find places and showing flexibility when making admissions decisions.
But we must also recognise that they enter a labour market unlike any other, with a complex mix of structural and cyclical factors creating an undersupply of skills. Pick up any newspaper over the last week and you can’t have failed to notice the raft of stories about shortages of HGV drivers, hospitality staff, agricultural workers and more and its impact on supply chains across the economy.
Employers are struggling to access the people and skills they need, and the end of furlough alone won’t be enough to plug the gap. While we might not have a complete picture of labour shortages, evidence from specific sectors is simply too acute to ignore.
So how do we go about helping firms now, while setting Scotland’s workforce on a path for future prosperity?
The education and skills system is a perfect place to start. We’ve long known that we need to better calibrate the education and skills system to demand in the private sector. That ensures businesses get the people they need, while individuals are matched to roles with a long-term future.
Bolstering diversity and inclusion policies can help, allowing firms to choose from as wide a talent pool as possible. But it will take time. A more immediate solution would be to allocate a greater percentage of Apprenticeship Levy funds to support upskilling and retraining.
With Covid-19 providing such a unique shock to the labour market, there is also a pressing need to be more agile in the way we use the new immigration system. A more dynamic Shortage Occupation List, reviewed on an annual basis, would be warmly welcomed across the business community and could really help overcome those immediate pinch points in the economy.
Whatever the future brings for young people in Scotland, businesses will stand with them to give them the best opportunity to get on in life. The next generation will be the kingmakers if we are to be a highly skilled, prosperous and productive economy in the years ahead. In the face of immediate pressures, business and government must work together to make that happen.
Tracy Black is director of CBI Scotland