Apprentices WeekApprenticeships are on the rise, thanks to the introduction of the government’s Levy and the continued escalation of university tuition fees. Despite the increase in and sheer scope of apprenticeship opportunities, many school leavers are still not clear on what their options are once they leave school. Often, university is still prioritised as the logical next step for a school student, which means that sometimes the old assumption of apprenticeships in the more traditional, vocational sense prevails.

This means there’s a challenge for school leaver recruiters. The key is to begin engaging with this market while they are still at school, to make them aware they have options other than a university degree. The ability to start earning immediately (as opposed to accumulating university debt) is clearly a strong incentive, but it is generally more difficult for school students to access career information, despite the efforts school careers advisors continue to put in. Therefore, it’s likely some school leavers simply don’t realise how many options are out there for them.

That’s why Milkround aims to show school leavers more than just a range of entry level jobs and apprenticeships on our website. We offer a multitude of career advice, from how to write a CV for the first time, to succeeding in the final interview stages. We believe this gives school leavers the information and the confidence they need to not only make an informed decision about their future, but to succeed in their chosen career path.

Although the Apprenticeship Levy is likely to lead to more opportunities for school leavers, it seems a skills gap exists in this market. While school grades are quantifiable, soft skills are harder to measure in concrete terms. These types of skills are essential for all employees to grasp, but it takes a tailored recruitment strategy to give candidates the chance to prove them, especially with the limited experience school leavers have of employer expectations and professional environments.

Milkround’s research reaffirms the existence of this soft skills gap, but from a student perspective. Our annual survey of over 5,000 candidates revealed that only 23% of respondents believe that employers consider managing up a hugely important skill to have. Therefore, it seems this gap exists because candidates are prioritising different skills to their potential employers. Of course, when it comes specifically to managing up, candidates are also less likely to have had a great deal of experience with this, compared to other soft skills. This potentially explains the employer focus on training. There is still low confidence when it comes to students self-assessing their soft skills: a mere 16% of our respondents believe they can problem solve, and only 14% think they are self-aware and possess interpersonal skills. These findings imply that it’s not necessarily the case that young people don’t possess these skills, but they perhaps lack the ability to articulate these in the way employers are looking for.

Employers are often surprised by the fact that many apprentices miss the mark when it comes to apparently simple tasks. This may include poor time keeping, anything from not prioritising tasks and leaving them unfinished, to simply not being able to turn up to work on time. Another common error is completing a task and not actively seeking out another project to occupy themselves. Here lies a difference in expectation between apprentice and employer. This kind of working may be explained by how the individual works in school, perhaps how much they are encouraged to exceed expectations, versus meeting them.

Clearly, it’s difficult to truly pinpoint why it is that some candidates seem to be lacking in certain soft skills, although it certainly seems it’s not simply that they’re underprepared for the world of work. It’s more likely that they prioritise their skills differently to their employers, or generally lack confidence in their skills altogether. A well-rounded recruitment process aids not only the assessment of soft skills, but the development of them.

How can we simultaneously assess and encourage candidates’ soft skills?

While age certainly shouldn’t act as an excuse for poor quality of work, employers must remember that a candidate’s entire existence has largely been made up of education. School or college has been their main source of knowledge, which contributes to how they articulate their skillset. Often, it is more beneficial to see a school leaver prove their skills, rather than them simply tell you.

Showcase your working environment “outside of work”

Insight days are a great offering for students because not only do they give them a taste of company culture and the actual office space, they also get to hone their skills for the application process. Milkround have partnered with employers in the past to provide events like these – our most recent included workshops, Question and Answer panels and skill-building exercises. How well a candidate engages and works with new people says a lot about them. Offering a day of insight, rather than one purely of assessment is more likely to reveal true talent, as nerves are less likely to have an impact.

Set a pre-interview task

Creating a challenge in advance of an interview allows the candidate to prove their soft skills in a more concrete way, perhaps by making a presentation or case study. While always keeping in mind the lack of commercial awareness a candidate will have (beyond their own online research), set a task with the expectation of preparation you would require from an employee.

Learning depends on feedback

If you can take the time to pass along positive and constructive feedback to candidates, it will increase their self-awareness and their skillsets. The real evidence of potential lies in a candidate’s ability to learn quickly.

Overall, identifying, improving and developing a school leaver’s soft skillset firstly depends on recognising the skills “gap” between candidates and employers. Understanding the market begins with listening to candidates, to create the best recruitment process for your company and youth talent.