Closing the employability skills gap – at school

Philippa Baker

“90% of Indian graduates unemployable!” screamed print and online headlines in 2010, quoting research by NASSCOM, McKinsey, and The Economist. The figure designed, no doubt, to shock and stimulate measures to reverse the phenomenon, was disputed by some, but accepted by many. It focused attention on the gap between the skills students acquire in school and higher education, and the requirements of industry, for whom an ‘employable’ graduate is one who is workplace ready in terms of English language skills (often B1 on the Common European Framework (CEF)) and communication skills, and shows an aptitude for learning.

At the British Council, we are more aware of this gap than most, as we are often engaged by organisations to address this issue through training in the workplace. These companies recognise that the staff they have hired need extra support to deliver to international standards, and hire British Council experts to write and deliver training courses, which provide them with these skills. We are mostly called in for three reasons: to raise levels of English, to develop soft skills, and to build employees’ confidence.

An initiative designed to improve skills at the higher education level, is the NASSCOM qualifications NAC and NAC-Tech, developed in 2011 for the IteS-BPO and IT-Engineering sector respectively. The tests, which are now being rolled out across India, aim to provide a national framework describing industry competence. They quantify language, IT and reasoning skills, and through these, the candidate’s employability. By preparing for and taking the test, NASSCOM hope that students will have the skills they need on graduation.

But many would argue that addressing these issues during workplace training, or even at universities and colleges is leaving it far too late. What is needed is an awareness amongst school teachers of the skill set that industry demands, so they can begin to build competence in the classroom and produce learners who even before leaving school, have some of the skill sets they will need in employment. The following are three suggested ways of doing this.

Employability through English
There is no doubt that teachers are under pressure to cover the curriculum and to deliver results in the classroom. But finding time for business English in the classroom is crucial. The British Council’s websites LearnEnglish Professionals (www.learnenglishprofessionals.org) and TeachingEnglish (www.teachingenglish.org.uk) have plenty of ideas that can be used in the classroom, or recommended to students outside it. The website www.onestopenglish.com is another excellent resource for work-related lesson plans. And the newly launched British Council app Jobseekers (www.enrichyourenglish.com/jobseekers.html) provides employability skills training direct to your mobiles.

Raising awareness of soft skills
Soft skills such as time management, active listening, and assertiveness are key to success in the 21st century workplace. Raise your own awareness of these by looking at www.bbc.co.uk/learning. Put these into practice to develop your own career, and bring them into the classroom using these lesson plans http://www.britishcouncil.org/professionals-lesson-downloads-job-skills-homepage.htm.

Building confidence
By far the biggest challenge we face as we train adults in the workplace on English language skills is that they are afraid to speak, and more importantly, afraid to make mistakes. Often, this stems from their experience at school, and their fear of being corrected by their teacher. Learners must be confident to take risks, and feel secure and safe in their learning environment. As teachers, we can help by avoiding high-pressure situations like speaking in front of the class (using group work instead), by encouraging and giving sufficient praise, and by regularly reminding our classes of Einstein’s dictum “anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new”.

The author is Head of Corporate Training, British Council India. She can be reached at [email protected].

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