Developing the skills to enhance employability for young people

The task of preparing young people for work will involve different inputs and different professional applications, from teacher to careers adviser, to employer. This will begin for many in the home with parental guidance and will continue through education, particularly as young people get closer to leaving school and through further and higher education, where applicable. It will not end there however, employers will need new employees to develop a range of on-the-job skills and knowledge and to keep on top of these as they change over time. So, developing employability becomes a lifelong process, it evolves over time and circumstances. It will include the acquisition of cognitive skills, the knowledge needed to become and remain employable/ employed; technical skills, the specific skills needed to do a job or series of jobs; and the “softer” skills which are more to do with behavioural
competencies, attitudinal outlook and expression, and the ability to deal with challenges and manage change.

Until recently (2012) secondary schools in England had a statutory responsibility to provide programmes of careers education, designed to raise aspiration and develop the motivation to make decisions about future learning and work options. Amongst the key components of such learning programmes are:

• Helping individuals to know their strengths and development needs

• Raising awareness of how they behave and interact with others

• Being self aware in an emotional intelligence sense, how they are perceived by others

• Taking control of their choices

• Demonstrating resilience throughout life and career.

This aspect of school learning has traditionally sat outside the National Curriculum in England and Wales and as it was a nonexamined subject it had less importance, squeezed out by the pressure on schools to perform against a series of academic examination results whose value determined where a school is ranked in league tables of school effectiveness. Furthermore the statutory requirement for schools to manage a programme of careers education has ceased as a result of the 2011 Education Act, suggesting that this is no longer seen as a national priority in the development of young people; a belief not shared by many engaged in the business of preparing young people for the world of work.

For some time there has been recognition of the need for young people to acquire “life skills” and there have been many different iterations of life skills programmes in operation, particularly in the realm of further education and work related training. Their aim is to engage, energise, and equip young people to become responsible and adaptable individuals and employees. The evidence of their impact is variable and this has been hampered by the lack of a consistent and robust methodology of measurement, resulting in there being no defined and universal qualification.

Against this backdrop there are a number of bespoke developments designed to address how young people can be helped to become more employable and successful citizens. One such example is the Right
Track project operated by the joint venture social enterprise, reachfor Limited. The Right Track project has trialled an innovative approach using seedcorn funding from the Department for Education to develop models of early intervention to increase participation by, and improve the achievements of, disadvantaged young people. Reachfor designed the Right Track project to provide an evidence-based method of building the personal resilience of young people, considered to be at risk of becoming NEET on leaving school. Through this they aim to equip young people with the skills that will help them make the most of their other achievements whether measured by educational attainment or skill acquisition; the realisation being that qualifications alone are not reliable predictors of success in finding or keeping a job.

The Right Track project adopted as the cornerstone of its innovative project the application of mental toughness utilising the MTQ48 psychometric tool (both mental toughness and MTQ48 are described in detail elsewhere in this publication). It targeted young people who were disadvantaged by their diagnosis of having behavioural, emotional, or learning difficulties whilst at school with a view to building their resilience to enable them to manage smooth transitions through key phases of their lives, including the transition from school to adult and working life. For these young people to make a successful transition into employment will ultimately depend on their ability to manage the conditions that are deemed to make them vulnerable and their behaviours.

The basic hypothesis underpinning the project was the view that particular interventions can be applied that can help young people assess their challenges and understand the personal resources available in overcoming them. It set out to help young people identify the consequences of some of their negative behaviours, such as poor school attendance, behavioural problems whilst at school, and the way in which these can hinder their chances of finding and keeping a job in later life. The project worked with more than 4,000 young people in eight areas across England and at different stages of education from year six (aged ten to eleven) to year ten (aged fourteen to fifteen). The work was carried out through individual face-to-face sessions as well as through group work activity with the young people. Central to the project's design was the application of the MTQ48 mental toughness measure, which was used with each participant along with the application of a series of development workshops designed to increase their
resilience and develop their sense of self. This was overwhelmingly a positive experience for the individual participants, who expressed the benefits of looking at aspects of their personality and having a measurable value placed on these attributes. These benefits were further enhanced where young people could be shown to have increased their levels of mental toughness from the start to the end of the project by re-testing individuals following the adoption of new approaches and techniques to improving personal effectiveness.

The project's outcomes focused on three areas of individual progress:

1. Changes in mental toughness

2. Changes in attitudes to school, behaviour, and work

3. Attendance at school.

Mental toughness increased in all areas of the country where the Right Track project independently operated and in six of the eight areas this change was statistically significant. For those participants who completed two MTQ48 tests:

• Forty-nine per cent increased their mental toughness

• Twenty-three per cent decreased their mental toughness

• Twenty-eight per cent stayed the same.

However, these initial results may be even more significant as the measurement of movement was based on where individuals' scores moved sten ranges. A sten range represents a range of raw scores, therefore it is possible that participants' raw scores may have increased, or decreased, within that range and not shown up in the analysis to have changed. Further analysis when the project evaluation has been completed, will look at this. Because almost as half of the participants' scores showed an increase in mental toughness, it is conceivable that more of them may have had an increase in mental toughness raw scores than the fortynine per cent measured by sten changes alone.

The measure of the young people's progress included the use of attitude surveys at the beginning and the end of the project to determine whether the young people could articulate the personal benefits to them. The overall attitudes expressed were positive at the beginning
and the end of the project, with individuals indicating that they saw misbehaviour and poor school attendance as wrong and potentially harmful to their chances of entering further study or employment after school, which for the majority was their goal. Where the differences in attitude were evident between the beginning and the end of Right Track, these tended to be related to school: seven per cent more agreed that they liked being at school after Right Track than before they began the project; Eleven per cent fewer young people agreed that teachers were always “getting at them” and eleven per cent more young people wanted to study full time when they were eligible to leave school at sixteen by the end of Right Track. This concurred with teacher assessments and perceptions of the young people involved. The feedback from teachers was positive, they indicated that forty-three per cent of participants improved their behaviour, thirty-three per cent had improved attendance and forty-six per cent had improved their work in class.5

At the time of writing, the independent evaluation of the Right Track project has yet to be completed and this will be done in the next few months, with the results here representing the independent evaluator's emerging findings in the last quarter of the project. The results are positive and have provided both quantitative and qualitative evidence of the improvement in young people's outlook, attitude, and behaviour when they understand the benefits of working on their character and have objective and reliable measurements to rely on. The motivational benefits as well as the actual benefits to young people of developing their mental toughness can be significant in improving their outlook and improving their employability skills as they enter the working world.

The use of mental toughness measurement with young people in an employability context has enabled the young people, their teachers, and their careers advisers to enhance their preparation for adult and working life. As individuals learn to understand the importance of being able to make plans (take control of their lives) and to stick to them (demonstrate commitment to a goal) they raise their personal self esteem (confidence) and ultimately develop the ability to deal with changing opportunities and challenges. Overlaying these characteristics with the ability to perform work based functions, improve technical skills and navigate change will be the key to their future employability.

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