Developing young workforce strategy - impact on employer engagement: evaluation

An independent evaluation of the impact of Developing the Young Workforce Strategy on employer engagement.

Findings - employers and practitioners

This section provides a summary of the findings across all employer and practitioner interviews.

Employer motivations

We spoke to a range of employers, including those who had recently started working with DYW and those who already had an established relationship with them. Employers were generally more confident talking about the full range of work they do with young people and schools, often as part of a range of community engagement or workforce planning activities. Many discussed their engagement with DYW within this context, but most did not talk about DYW in isolation.

Employers interviewed had two main motivations for supporting and engaging in young people's education and employment:

1. A sense of social responsibility (the "right thing to do") and personal motivations, such as their own experience with school and the world of work. This includes wanting to help challenge traditional views of the world of work such as "Construction is not for girls", "Women don't do STEM subjects" and "Trades are only for the bad kids". Employers were also keen to highlight non-traditional pathways and move away from the view that, "University is the only way forward".

"It also gives you that warm and fuzzy feeling". – Large employer, DYW Inverness and Central Highlands

2. To help with recruitment and retention challenges, particularly in securing a pipeline of new talent and meeting future recruitment demand.

"It's all about keeping a conveyor belt of talent in the local area and keeping on top of that". – Medium employer, DYW Inverness and Central Highlands

Although employers noted that they were experiencing significant skills shortages at present, their main motivations for engaging young people were focused on securing future talent. This is especially true in places like the Borders, and Highlands and Islands where the focus in on keeping local talent in the area. They were happy to take on young people in training and entry level roles but were struggling to find the right people with the right attitudes and desire to work in their sectors.

Those employers who had used the ERI funding consistently reported that this was a key motivation for them to offer training to young people. Most of these employers did not reflect the motivation of supporting communities or meeting a social obligation but were focused solely on their own recruitment needs. This suggests that these types of support may be able to encourage a wider range of employers to engage with young people.

"I was completely motivated by what we needed within [the company]. I was grateful that there was money there to support me, but I didn't take them on just to be nice about it". – ERI employer

The motivations for employers who have had limited engagement with young people also follow the same patterns of social responsibility, especially for those young people who have additional support needs, and ensuring they are put in touch with the right people and the right environment and helping with recruitment and future workforce planning.

In terms of employers engaging with DYW, the main reasons and motivations for this were around connectivity and access to schools and young people, including:

  • Access to the right people in schools.
  • Access to cohorts of young people.
  • Access to different groups of young people – i.e., those who do not know what they want to do, or are not interested in further education.
  • Having a contact in schools who understands the world of work and has the time to engage with employers.
  • There is also a growing realisation of the secondary benefits of this engagement, including the development opportunity for staff, PR around Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), and the potential to help employers to win contracts, for example, from public sector clients.
  • A future workforce and customer base. Employers are conscious of their current and longer term recruitment needs, and about the value of a positive image in local communities, and some employers did talk about their motivation in terms of succession planning and marketing.
  • A growing recognition that there is talent available which is untapped, and employers need to be much more flexible in their approach to finding staff post-COVID.

Practitioners have seen a shift in employer motivations, and current motivations are predominantly about building a talent pipeline and drawing on the value young people can bring to an organisation. The wide range of motivations have started to converge around the pressing need for hiring people now.

"Some genuinely want to help young people, but the reality is that employers need bodies now". – DYW practitioner

Rather than taking graduates, some employers are starting to focus more on work-based learning routes and taking young people direct from school to train them internally. Less the case now, but still identified, are some more mercenary motivations, for example, to receive grant support and a source of cheap labour.

Employers were keen to share with young people what they do and how they do it, and they also wanted to get the views of young people on what they were doing. There was a growing realisation among employers that this is not only their future workforce but also their future customer base.

Many larger employers have structured CSR programmes in place, and they view early engagement with young people as an opportunity to influence curriculum design. SMEs often want to give something back, but also see the opportunity to become better informed about likely future skills shortages as they often don't have time to understand their local labour market.

"We want young people coming through who want to be in this industry, are prepared and know what is expected for them. Need this to help with skills shortages and progression planning." – Small employer, DWY North East

However, for both larger employers and SMEs there is now more of a continual commitment, and the realisation of the potential for 'getting in early'. In terms of the two-way 'Business to Business' proposition mentioned above, some of the secondary benefits include a development opportunity for staff in engaging with young people, public relations around CSR and that engagement with DYW may help business to win tenders.

There was also a growing recognition from employers that there is untapped talent available among young people, and they need to be more flexible and responsive in their approach to finding staff post-COVID. They have skills gaps which can only be filled by reaching outside their traditional sources of recruitment or making alternative routes available to young people - in particular women and those with protected characteristics.

Limitations, barriers, and challenges

The main limitations on employers engaging or doing more around the DYW agenda were a lack of staff time and the opportunity cost involved, communicating with schools, COVID-19, and the perceptions of young people. These, combined with the fact that most businesses were small and often lack dedicated HR staff, made it difficult for businesses to react. There were also structural issues, and the SAAB recognised that, for some employers, the scale of financial support for apprenticeships remains a barrier. Employers also referred to regular changes in the scale and nature of funding support for in-work training which made it hard for smaller employers to plan ahead. The limitations, barriers, and challenges faced by employers include:

  • Capacity and resources – engagement requires time out of the business and incurs a cost for employers.

"It's about a balance between providing support and managing core business." – Small employer, DYW North East

  • Communicating and engaging with schools - The main challenges employers have experienced when working with schools include; finding the right person within schools, working within term times, administration requirements, and helping teachers to understand the world of work and the range of opportunities available to young people. There is only a short window of opportunity for employers to engage with young people of school leaving age, so careful planning is needed to encourage employer engagement. This relationship is heavily reliant on the individuals involved and their interest in and ability to develop these opportunities for young people. These relationships are fragile and are not able to be sustained when individuals move on. Employers felt that DYW has helped with this element of engagement with schools, and without them, these relationships would not be sustained.

"We can [provide support] in classrooms or out of the classroom. But you often come up against a brick wall. We do all the prep but there are so many barriers getting into school, so you just don't get in, it's not easy." – Large employer, DYW Inverness and Central Highlands

  • A significant barrier which was mentioned by some employers was the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. This limited their opportunities to engage with young people and made it more difficult to engage with schools.
  • Some employers may be reluctant to engage because of negative perceptions of young people – such as being disruptive, uninterested, unreliable, and difficult – and a lack of awareness of the potential benefits of engagement for their business.

"I still think there's prejudice – 'those people' – there's a human being in there." – Small employer, DYW Lanarkshire and Dunbartonshire

  • Lack of interest or engagement from young people in the activities that employers deliver can also be a barrier for employers, who are focused on recruiting and promoting their business. Employers would rather spend more time with young people who are interested in their business area.

Case study example: DYW Borders

One company, a labelling and bottling plant, increased their support for young people by working with their DYW regional group. This gave them access to the right contacts to be able to reach young people. They were keen to raise awareness of their links to STEM careers. Their broad aim is to help create a pipeline of talented young people into this industry.

This approach helped the business to reach the right young person, to enable them to effectively engage remotely, but also their work with DYW and connections into schools meant that schools were receptive to their approach. They are keen to create and promote good training opportunities for young people who don't want to go down an academic route.

The main suggestions from employers to overcome these challenges include:

  • Advanced planning of engagement activities throughout the year with schools and other employers to help employers plan and budget appropriately.
  • Incentives for employers such as funding to offset the costs of preparing and delivering work experience opportunities.
  • Developing a package of support for employers which details the activities, expected commitments, benefits for their business, and a checklist to help them plan and feel confident in supporting young people's education and employment.
  • Overcoming the fear factor in employing young people who have experienced different learning approaches. Will they have same work ethic? The job therefore is to allay employer's fears by using engagement such as work experience which gives them a chance to engage more effectively.

Employers who have had limited engagement with young people or DYW feel that they have significant resource and capacity constraints that prevent them from being more involved, but still have a desire to help young people with education and employment opportunities, with a few committing to taking on more apprentices and interns. One employer stated that it was only capacity and resource limitations that prevented engagement.

However, there is an emerging finding from these interviews, which is supported in the regional interviews that some employers may be put off from engaging with young people as a result of bad experiences. Two employers indicated that through their engagement to date they had not received follow-ups from DYW or were able to employ the young people at the end of their work experience / placement. This suggests that communication and active, ongoing engagement between DYW and employers is key to supporting businesses, who in turn can support young people. A robust contact management system could be one tool to assist with maintaining contact with employers, for schools or for DYW Coordinators.

"It's not straightforward to support young people. There is a disconnect with opportunities – there are so many hoops to jump through to get funding. I understand why employers would be disengaged, it's very admin heavy and not easy to navigate. It should be made easier for employers to engage and help. Communication has to be clearer. [There should be] a way – like a portal – where employers can share our availability of when we can go into schools." – Large employer, DYW Glasgow

For both employers who had engaged with young people and those who only had limited engagement, there were varying degrees of awareness of DYW and what they could offer. Some employers knew about DYW but were happy to continue on their own, while others had seen some emails about them but did not have time to respond, and a few had not heard of DYW.

For the employers interviewed who have had no engagement with young people, they also had no awareness of DYW. One employer had not even considered getting young people into her business, but as a result of the engagement for this evaluation, would consider how she could do this.

Employers also mentioned that it was challenging to navigate the range of offers and support, coupled with the number of organisations working with young people around education and employment. The DYW offer is seen as being unclear, and the menu of services with which to engage is not well advertised. Employers found it difficult to find the right person to speak to in schools and also struggled to understand which was the best organisation to approach for their needs, for example, DYW, SDS, Apprenticeships Scotland, or the local authority.

"Needs a framework and all need to talk to each other, so that employers are not passed around trying to get to the right person to speak to. [There needs to be] one place where DYW, SDS, Apprenticeships, YPG all are." – Large employer, DYW Glasgow

There is a need for greater clarity about the respective offers, who does what, and appropriate routing. A one stop-shop or hub was suggested for the YPG, providing a clear single point of contact to explore where to get funding and how to apply. A more visible map of services and support would also be helpful, with links to each of the opportunities. Employers often dropped out at an early stage of engagement as the process proved to be too time-consuming and difficult to understand.

"They just need the funding or someone to bring it all together under one umbrella to make it easier and more straightforward for employers to navigate." – Large employer, DYW Glasgow

Practitioners identified that the challenge post-COVID has been the number of opportunities and not enough people to fill them. However, face-to-face engagement is returning, and both schools and employers welcome this return to normality. According to DYW School Coordinators, young people and particularly young people from more disadvantaged groups want and need face-to-face engagement.

There are also several geographic and logistical barriers. A lot of employers would open their doors for visits, but this was not always possible in rural areas because of the distances involved. Budgeting for travel is a consideration as generally schools fund travel costs, but sometimes individual employers may help with the funding.

Some employers may feel anxious about employing young people. Engagements such as work experience provide a way of allaying some employer's fears about taking on young people from school who are not "work-ready" and do not have the required skills to do the job. Work experience opportunities give employers a chance to try out the relationship from both sides and understand the contribution that the young person could make, as well as ensuring that the young people have the right attitudes and behaviours for the workplace.

The role of a range of influencers is important, notably, parents, teachers, and career advisors. The case study below illustrates the fact that there is much more to be done to educate young people's influencers, such as parents and guardians, and teachers, as to the benefits of apprenticeships. This is a vital function of DYW coordinators, and they provide a key source of information for teachers and families.

Case study example: Influences on young people

A pupil was advised by her parents to go into the family hospitality business as the family could not afford to help her through a degree course. She attended a careers event put on by DYW School Coordinators working with local businesses. One stall was supported by a newly opening whisky distillery who were inviting interest in jobs available and in particular work-based learning routes available through apprenticeships. She asked them to explain again to her mother and father as they had no idea about these options and did not recognise these as an alternative route to a degree course.

Between the DYW School Coordinator and the employer, there was information sharing with the young person on the opportunity and also raising awareness and helping to build confidence in the parents to understand this route to work. Without this careers event, this may not have happened.

DYW School Coordinators described how the employer engagement process has evolved and deepened. Making connections and developing the school's offer takes coordination and it is an important part of their role to maintain and support employer relationships. It was noticeable that in areas such the Borders, and Dumfries and Galloway the relatively low population and settlement size made it easier to build and maintain relationships.

Case study example: Range of employer engagement

A new DYW School Coordinator in a school in the Borders felt that despite engagement by two businesses there were opportunities to improve both the breadth and sustainability of employer involvement with the school. Through additional engagement with the local Rotary Club and DYW, the involvement of local businesses with the school increased substantially.

As a result, a job readiness programme of 8 weeks was introduced, including pre-employment support, CV and cover letter support, interview skills, dress to impress, and social media training. Young people were taken out to businesses and given increased engagement opportunities. A careers fair has now been planned for key businesses.

The example demonstrates a frequently made point about the breadth and depth of engagement needed to ensure a school has range of employer contacts and provides experiences to fully respond to both pupils' interests and needs. In this case, it needed the dedicated time of a coordinator to take forward this initiative

Employer preferences

Employers were asked about what their preferences were for supporting young people, in terms of the type of support they were most inclined and best able to offer. Most employers appear to be highly responsive to the needs of schools at different times and are willing to engage. However, employers did want a more strategic and long-term relationship with schools, with better planning and commitment from schools to make sure that meaningful engagement was possible. Employers are learning about when is the best time to engage with schools, and there is some understanding that this takes time.

The capacity to support young people was based on the business demand and need. There was a strong awareness that supporting young people took away from time on other aspects of the business, and that the nature and format of engagement needed to be as efficient as possible to maximise the benefit for the employer from the time invested.

Employers reported offering a range of types of support, from information, career days and mock interviews to more formal work placements and apprenticeships. They reported a willingness to be flexible and respond to the needs of schools.

However, they reported that they preferred offering support that was more meaningful, for example working with a school over the longer term, and more time intensive work with smaller numbers of young people. The main reasons behind these preferences were that employers wanted to get the most meaningful engagement in return for their effort. They felt that offering fewer, more targeted, and higher quality engagements was a better use of their time, would result in better experiences for young people, and help with their business needs, such as recruitment.

"We will do whatever is helpful for the school, but it is mostly reactive and short sharp bursts of activity. We want to do more sustained work and engagement to make more of an impact." – Small employer, DYW North East

Although larger careers events offer lots of young people the potential for engagement, employers reflected that this was not the best use of their time. They were putting in time and effort to prepare for and attend events and felt they were not getting quality engagements out of it.

As well as types of activities, employers also reflected on the specific types of information or messaging they found most useful to share from knowledge and expectations of the world of work, non-traditional pathways, and promoting specific industries and challenging expectations, which included women in STEM careers, and alternatives to university.

It was clear from many employers that their focus for types of support they offered was often around a passion for their industry or area of work. This was reflected by more employers than any focus around disadvantaged young people, though this was also a focus for some employers.

"We want to focus on support secondary school pupils who show an interest in engineering and design, or STEM subjects, like Maths." – Large employer, DYW Inverness and Central Highlands

Many employers instead discussed that they wanted to promote their industry to young people, or a specific skill area. For example, promoting careers in STEM, especially to women and girls, or even to raising awareness of their industry to younger age groups through primary schools, long before they were making choices about qualifications or job applications.

Case study example: Employer specialist interests

Employers reflected on the specific types of information or messaging they found most useful to share with young people. This was driven by their personal experiences of the world of work or their desire to improve inclusivity of their sector. Examples of these are demonstrated below:

Women in STEM

One employer wanted to celebrate "International Women in Engineering Day" in June to promote their business to young people, and in particular, encourage more girls to consider engineering as a career option. The employer reached out to DYW to see if they were aware of any girls in schools who would be interested in a session. They ran a half-day workshop for 15 girls who were accompanied by the DYW School Coordinators and teachers. They discussed the career options within their business, as well as opportunities and careers in engineering more generally.

Women in digital roles

One employer has designed a programme which they promote and run in schools, focusing on encouraging women and girls to get involved in the digital technology industry. They run a number of these programmes throughout the year which have been successful, as well as running workshops and one day programmes which are aimed at girls aged 12 – 16 to teach them how to code and provide more information on the tech industry. They also run webinars for women that have left school, or a career change into tech – in an effort to encourage women to join the tech industry.

For some employers, their focus was simply on supporting their local community, regardless of the industry focus or any specific needs of the young people. This suggests that employers' preferences for support are often intrinsically connected to their motivations for taking part, and that there is a range of reasons for support as well as types of support.

These preferences often may form a hierarchy, both in terms of engagement types (ranging from high numbers but low engagement, to more intensive support with smaller groups), and also with the types of young people (for example, information for a whole school to hands on support to a group of special interest to that company).

Since the introduction of YPG and the 5 Asks, most often work experience opportunities are offered by employers. However, employers find that simply speaking to young people about their careers, how they got to do their current job, and the progression routes available, is always popular as young people and often teachers do not understand how this works. However, DYW School Coordinators find it helpful to have each business identify a project as this shows commitment and buy in.

Part of the interviews undertaken specifically focused on the extent to which employers were providing virtual engagement opportunities for young people and schools. Employers have carried out a range of different types of engagement virtually which has included online videos, interviews with staff, prospectus videos and so on, through to virtual careers fairs and live online demonstrations of elements of their business. Some employers, also talked about the move to remote working in terms of current staff and the ability to work from home and attend online training which was provided throughout the pandemic.

There are mixed views from these employers about the benefits and challenges of virtual engagement, with some taking the view that virtual engagement was the way forward, with others clearly stating a preference for face-to-face engagement with young people. However, most employers did acknowledge that there was a time and place for virtual engagement and that taking a hybrid approach would be the most beneficial options for both young people and employers.

Employer views on the benefits of virtual engagement are influenced by the type of business, sector and the skills employers are looking for. For example, business which are office based are better placed to provide virtual engagement experiences which reflect the office environment, and the experience young people could expect in an office. However, businesses where more manual and hands-on work is required, or are people-facing found it more difficult to provide realistic and effective work experience offers virtually, and as such would not consider doing much virtual engagement in future as they are not able to replicate the business environment to give young people the full experience of what it is like to work with them.

"Was really hard to give a true reflection of what happens – can't hear the noise, feel the environment and atmosphere, very hard to replicate virtually." – Small employer, Virtual engagement sample

Some employers were very positive about the role that virtual engagement can have, with the main benefits identified as:

  • Employers are able to save both time and money by reducing travel time, particularly in more remote regions. Some employers also noted that virtual engagement meant they could speak to multiple different schools / classes over one day which was a more efficient use of their time.
  • Employers have found it easier to coordinate and agree sessions and events with teachers virtually.
  • Virtual engagement increases access to young people within a region but also nationally. So not only are employers able to talk to more young people, they are also able to talk to young people who they had previously not been able to engage with.

However, several employers did not feel that virtual engagement was beneficial for young people and note the following limitations and challenges of taking this approach:

  • Employers were concerned about the quality of the experience they were able to provide young people. Employers felt they were not able to offer an "authentic experience" or replicate the work environment well.
  • Employers were concerned that not all young people taking part were engaged and therefore were able to participate fully. This extended to concerns about being able to reach more disadvantaged young people and increasing the digital divide.
  • Some employers felt that they were not able to gauge how well the young people could work together in a team or were able to get a feeling for other important employability skills such as problem solving, attitude, responses to situations and so on.
  • Some employers did move to virtual delivery during the pandemic to ensure they were still able to run their events. However, while engagement was "good" in 2020, several employers noted a significant drop-off in engagement in 2021, citing "digital fatigue" as the "novelty had probably worn off". These same employers have noticed that people now want to engage face-to-face rather than virtually.
  • One employer also noted that not all young people would want to engage with strangers and provide an insight into their home life. This employer felt that employers had a duty to be mindful and respectful of young people's situation and ensure they offered young people the choice in how they wanted to engage.

"Don't go down the rabbit hole of virtual engagement. It is great that the Scottish Government and DYW are looking at ways of improving and supporting employer engagement, but it's not all about virtual engagement." – Small employer, Virtual engagement sample

While there are clear benefits and limitations of virtual engagement, most employers were pragmatic about the situation and felt that there was probably a time and place for virtual engagement options within a hybrid approach:

  • Employers noted that virtual engagement opportunities ensure they were still able to engage with and offer young people work experiences throughout the pandemic.
  • Employers noted how some roles and types of work experience and engagement were better suited for online delivery. In addition, a few employers noted how elements of their engagement – such as prospectus details and interviews with staff – could be turned into digital content to be shared more widely with young people and schools. However, one employer noted that despite doing this, they did not receive any follow-up and did not know if it had been successful and well received by young people.
  • A hybrid approach which combines the best elements of both virtual and face-to-face was suggested by employers, although employers are not clear about what elements would be moved to remote delivery.

"It is an efficient use of staff time to do some virtual stuff. It's a very efficient use of our time to be able to show young people a video of the factory and then spend the rest of the time focusing on the details of what it's like to work for us and investing more in each young person." – Small employer, Virtual engagement sample

Case study example: How virtual engagement can be maximised by employers

Several employers recognised that there were elements of their young people engagement that could be moved online, such as factory or business tours; interviews with certain members of staff (e.g. female plumbers and engineers); online information about the company accompanied by a video. They felt that moving these into a digital, and reusable format, would result in efficiencies within the business and reduce staff time spent on engagement activities. This would also mean that the time spent by staff was more focused and tailored to the young people and the questions or interests that they might have.

One employer has developed a video and prospectus of their company which they sent to DYW to introduce them to the schools as a way of helping teachers and young people understand what they do. The employer has estimated that between 150 and 600 young people should have seen this video, but this approach hasn't resulted in any work experience or engagement with young people and the employer does not know why this is the case.

While this approach could be useful for employers, it is important to note that promotion of activities, and how this information is used, needs to be given careful consideration.

One employer suggested that DYW could help employers to understand the virtual landscape and what offers and opportunities there were for employers to tap into or partners with other employers or organisations who were already doing virtual delivery.

Support well matched

The employers interviewed were often knowledgeable about recruitment gaps and skills needs in their own sectors or local area, in terms of ongoing and future needs, but generally did not talk about how that fitted into the wider economic need for the region as a whole.

Practitioners felt that more focus was needed on addressing regional skills shortages and planning for skills for the future. Practitioners feel that there could be an opportunity for DYW to be more strategic in terms of identifying the current and emerging skills and recruitment needs and thereby targeting employers and emerging sectors to ensure they are focusing on these main areas of economic need. This could be achieved through better use and cascading of the simplified SDS sectoral and regional analysis to improve targeting of these employers.

"Some jobs of the future are gaining visibility such as renewables. Planning for this reaches as far away as 2050 so we need a long term approach recognising that this is often a 'new workforce' which is required on top of the need for a skills pipeline to maintain core business activity. To achieve this additional business need, we need more flexibility in the system and to deal with different individuals, employers, and improve sector-based dialogue." - SAAB EEG

"In the short-term, training opportunities to address skills shortages in the economy and to align with job growth and work-based competencies could be developed. For example ticket-based accreditation such as working at heights. SDS already recognise the skills gaps these work-based competencies help address labour shortages in the short-term are marketable and saleable." - SAAB EEG

On funding, practitioners viewed other funding schemes as being helpful, for example, Kickstart. However, it was reported that there was no joined-up approach for the employer, with different areas having different offers, and 'the goal posts change too often'.

"Some employers want the incentives or have requested for us to find extra support for young people and therefore we use our good working relationship with local authorities to make referrals to ERI. However, there is little signposting or information available on the business process more generally or on the referrals processes." - DYW practitioner

Understanding of qualifications

Employers were asked about their understanding of the range of qualifications on offer, and the extent to which qualifications were important for young people to have.

Most employers interviewed reported a sufficient understanding of the qualifications on offer and they felt a lot of work has been done to simplify the qualifications system. Although while larger employers have a good understanding, smaller businesses need some further help to understand the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework.

From the practitioners' perspective it was thought that more was needed to help employers understand qualifications and the role they play in recruitment. They felt that schools and parents are still focused on their child achieving five Highers, and there is a need to re-examine the role academic qualifications play in recruitment for certain jobs and roles.

Nearly all employers emphasised the importance of the development of meta skills and soft skills. Meta-skills are innate, timeless, high-order skills that create adaptive learners; able to succeed whatever the future brings' (Skills Development Scotland, 2021). Soft skills are more general skills that employers require, like communication and organisation (National Careers Service)

These skills are what they value the most, and many reflected that they did not necessarily rely on qualifications. Instead, they would rather young people had the attitude and skills that would allow for them to do well in the workplace and be willing to train for specific skills as needed. The exception to this was in sectors or roles where a specific qualification was essential, such as medical roles.

"The modern apprenticeship has been the game changer. It has been far better received than previous iterations. But we need to get to a place where an employer legitimately questions why you need a university graduate when you can train 'from raw' from school by putting someone through college and on the job training." - DYW practitioner

Other employers we spoke to felt that the most important thing they looked for was young people demonstrating the right attitudes and behaviours. Most felt that work-based qualifications were important for young people, particularly those who did not want to pursue academic routes to employment, and most employers valued these work-based qualifications. Employers felt that if a young person had the right attitude, then helping them get the right skills for the job was easy for them to support.

"New SME employers entering the market used to be helped by Business Gateway. There needs to be more induction around the range of apprenticeships. People have no clue about graduate apprenticeships and when they talk to career influencers, they are blown away by them." – DYW practitioner

"On the qualifications themselves the basic understanding is there, and employers will get it, but frequent changes make for a slower process of learning. However, SVQ work based learning qualifications are complex, can be confusing, and require work to understand."- SAAB EEG

"Schools are quite entrenched on 5 Highers and parents remain 'brainwashed' by them." – DYW practitioner

Practitioners saw employers' attitudes to qualifications changing, with a greater recognition that, while the piece of paper is valuable, the young persons' attitude to work can be more important to the employer. Traditional qualifications in many cases act as a proxy, and prove that a young person can focus and see things through, though attitudes and behaviours which are less easy to teach, or evidence, are what employers really look for.

"Nearly all employers (95%) emphasise the importance of the development of meta skills and soft skills – for example, how well a person has developed within their own skills sets. This is what employers value the most. Put simply, employers want well motivated young people interested in learning, with good employability skills. With a majority of hiring being for trades and technical skills there needs to be more focus on hands-on skills suitable for these roles." – DYW School Coordinators

Practitioners suggested employers were starting to see the value of taking on young people on work-based learning routes. However, there was still much to be done to counter the 'we've done it this way for years' attitude.

"The workplace has changed and there is less status and snobbery around degrees. The UHI [University of the Highlands and Islands] model with entry level modern apprenticeships (day release) and opportunity to stay on to earn and learn has so much flexibility now and much going for it." – DYW practitioner

Although many employers understood and valued the range of work-based qualifications, there was still a perception among some employers, young people, and parents, that these were not of equal value to an academic qualification. It was thought that this is in part due to the range of qualifications and a lack of understanding of what they include and how they function. Awareness needs to be raised, particularly of the importance of foundation apprenticeships, and to position work-based qualifications as a desirable alternative to further education or higher education routes.

"There needs to be a national campaign to promote alternative routes. It would be good to have a Scottish Credit Qualification Framework wall map produced to help influencers better understand how these various routes can lead to the same outcome." - DYW School Coordinator

On equalities, engagement, and access, it was felt to be important that data was constantly reviewed across the board to ensure that training and qualifications are inclusive and accessible to disadvantaged or under-represented groups. More needed to be done on diversity and inclusion to ensure a widening of participation in STEM as a priority.

"Why is there such a limited pool of women available to do mechanical and engineering careers? One of the key reasons is that too few girls are taking physics." - SAAB EEG

If schools were better informed about the workplace or industry entry requirements there would be less need for guidance and 'hand holding' with employers, and this would assist more young people.

Foundation apprenticeship schemes are not consistently targeting the right demographic and not always equally available. They should be specifically targeting young people who do not want to take academic routes. Improving the parity of esteem between higher education and work-based training will improve outcomes for both individual young people, and for the job market as a whole.

It was noted that there were times when the qualifications and training frameworks didn't adapt quickly enough to be useful to employers, such as when technology changed. A more agile system of qualifications would better keep pace with a changing context. In particular, inflexibility could be problematic in contractual arrangements with age categories or between frameworks. For example, employers felt that there could be more flexibility to move between engineering and construction. There was also a gap identified between the technical apprenticeships and the manual level apprenticeships with less generalist availability, for example in the BTEC format which covers English and Maths, as well as Customer Service. This could provide a baseline of skills for individuals to then move into an apprenticeship.

Funding contribution rates across the frameworks need improvement as these currently do not support full cost recovery. Apprenticeships are not equally funded, and employers can find this unfair. Construction and engineering are well funded, however, in the care sector funding is adequate for 16-19 year olds but not for older groups. Also, the restrictions on these funding systems prevent the individual from sourcing additional funding themselves.

Supporting young people

In terms of supporting young people with the greatest barriers to employment, most employers interviewed did not have a specific view on this, but examples that were given of doing this focused on care leavers, and young people with special educational needs (SEN). Most employers did not have a specific focus on young people who may be most disadvantaged in the labour market. In terms of the amount of time and resources required, employers were conscious of getting the most out of their engagement with young people. To get the best return on their investment, some employers felt that focusing more on young people who seemed particularly interested in the kind of work that they did was the better option for them. This may have been exacerbated by the significant recruitment issues faced by many employers during the research period and does not mean that employers are not willing to support young people who are most disadvantaged in the labour market.

Many individual employers have faced barriers to education and wanted to give something back, through supporting young people in similar situations. Examples of effective ways to support young people with additional barriers to work or education included, for example, having a DYW School Coordinator, acting as an intermediary between the young person and the employer to collect and articulate information on additional support the young person might need, and then to ensure the employer had the knowledge and skills to best support them.

The SAAB equalities group identified that more could be done through family learning to inform parents about the work-based learning journey. It was felt to be important for employers to target opportunities at the young people who they were not currently reaching through their existing recruitment routes, or those who were most disadvantaged or low attaining. This issue is not just about skills but the provision of coordinated support around challenges and barriers these young people face at home, in school and at college.

A SAAB EEQ practitioner identified the need to build on all these entry routes to support diversity and inclusion. For example, this could involve developing a checklist at each stage, and setting out actions to ensure that the routes are maximising potential for inclusion and support for diverse groups.

Practitioners thought there was a lot more to do to address parity of esteem, and access to opportunity for SEN groups, for example educators needed to do more in terms of better linking SEN with Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) support. Employers felt they needed more support and information to make sure they were better able to support educational and workplace needs and adjustments. An example provided of this was training for employers on dyslexia, or effective signposting and support. It is more difficult for micro businesses to take on disadvantaged young people because of the time taken to provide additional support. Whilst physical health problems are more easily identifiable and addressed, there is still significant stigma attached to mental health.

From the practitioners' perspective, great effort was being made with more disadvantaged young people to ensure that the match with employers was appropriate and there would be wrap around support available. For example, MIND is happy to go into schools to support particular young people. In Ayrshire, employers are being helped to work effectively with SEN young people by linking employers up with Disability Confident and Access to Work and using the local DICE (Disability Inclusive = Confident Employers) as a coordinator. It is important for DYW staff to know the local landscape of support so that both employers and young people can be supported in the round.

DYW School Coordinators reported that their activity was very much focused on those with the greatest need, and more disadvantaged young people who don't progress onto higher level education. Many practitioners are passionate about inclusive employment and have identified support for young people in schools who have additional needs with programmes they can dip in and out of.

"In Ayrshire they have developed focus groups recognising that there is more work to do on educating employers on working with young people with barriers. Some are open to it and better links with Disability Confident and Access to Work are important. The local DICE (Disability Inclusion = Confident Employment) is a good example of just such an infrastructure." - DYW practitioner

Pastoral care teachers can be helpful in identifying the right target groups of young people that would benefit most. It is important that, once identified, the young person's needs are placed at the heart of the process and based on these, DYW School Coordinators are able to source the best fit in terms of employer and opportunity. For example, voluntary and community sector organisations, such as MIND, are happy to go into schools to provide awareness raising sessions on available support for SEN learners to staff. DYW School Coordinators talk about going the extra mile and avoiding "setting up disadvantaged young people to fail" by making sure wrap around support was available. They also pointed out that, for these purposes, virtual platforms worked well in some cases to support quicker connections and new routes for learning.

"They leave school at 16, if they make it that far, experience two years without support, and the next time you find them is when they claim DWP benefits aged 18." - SAAB EEQ

There is a knowledge gap for employers on neurodiversity and the understanding of the value it can bring to a business, and some employers would benefit from support to help them see the value of a more diverse workforce. Practitioners felt that the flexible workforce development fund could be marketed the same way as the SME apprenticeship levy, to support employers providing opportunities for young people.

Case study example: Supporting young people with complex needs

A tourism business working in the Edinburgh area discussed the suitability of their industry and roles available within in to neurodivergent young people, and likewise the suitability of neurodivergent young people to the tourism industry.

"I genuinely passionately believe that tourism is one of the most dynamic flexible and good industries to work in, with a genuinely fulfilling and meaningful job in tourism, regardless of background, ability, neurodiversity etc. There are good jobs available for people of all abilities and interests. "

This employer reflected that they were interested most of all in getting the right person with the right attitude and aptitude into roles, and acknowledged that school based qualifications, and certainly higher education, were not necessarily the best predictors of that.

Working with young people to provide training and work placements helps them to promote the opportunities in the industry. This includes making it clear that there are lots of roles that suit different skills and aptitudes, and that it is not necessarily a requirement to have a specific qualification in order to do the job.

Another business, working in the clothing industry, discussed that they work to support young people with additional barriers to work, and highlighted the importance of this.

"We give young people a trial – especially if they are long term carers, disabled or ex-offenders – we have a preference to take on these groups. The main purpose is to see if our company is right for them and that they are happy with the environment."

By having young people do a trial before committing to a job, it helped the company and the young person to see if the role is right for the person. This employer highlighted that the additional support is easy for employers to provide, but that employers need to be aware of what support they can offer, and how to offer this, to best meet the needs of young people and find the right match.

Impact of DYW involvement

Employers were asked to describe the difference that involvement with DYW has made to them, including in terms of recruitment, and the quality of both the match and retention of staff. All employers felt that engaging with DYW has been positive for them, regardless of the length of time they have been involved with DYW. The main challenge has been around the lack of continuity of DYW School Coordinators because of high DYW staff turnover, which has resulted in a lack of momentum and made it hard to build on initial engagement and activities with schools and highlights the fragile employer-school relationship that exists without DYW.

"Working with DYW is very impactful in a positive way as they recognise that the employer is short on time and resources and needs the links to be made for them. They provide a very important service. We would all be floundering without them." – Large employer, DYW Ayrshire

Employers often reflected on their ways of working with schools and young people overall, not just limited to their engagement through DYW. Those whose work with schools and young people pre-dates DYW involvement reflected that, while they were often ahead in terms of their engagement with schools, DYW had helped them to expand their work, or to enhance it by:

  • Increasing reach to a more diverse range of young people.
  • Making connections with other schools, colleges, and employers.
  • Reducing the time spent on administration and organising so they could focus on core business areas and provide high quality opportunities for young people.

"Having the DYW Coordinators spread around schools has made things a lot easier. We were spending our time reaching out to the schools individually, but you would find yourself bombarding them with lots of requests which isn't great. The Coordinators do the hard work for you in that regard, which is great". – Large employer, DYW Lanarkshire and Dunbartonshire

"It's benefitting us in recruitment. Getting involved in careers fairs meant we could get our name out there, letting people know our offer." Medium employer – DYW Inverness and Central Highlands

"It's definitely helped recruitment; we've employed 3 or 4 people on the back of training they've done with us. We get to know the [young person] better and they get to know if they like working with the environment or not." – Medium employer, DYW Outer Hebrides

Based on our engagement with employers, DYW appears to be focusing on ensuring that engagement with schools and young people is maximised across their region. However, this engagement appears to be reactive, responding to schools' demands, and does not show a demonstratable link with regional economic challenges. Although employers are aware of these challenges, they lack the time and resources, or the two-way communication with schools, to be able to develop well-planned activities which link into the wider economic agenda. There does appear to be scope to strengthen these links, but this will need to be informed by DYW leads in conjunction with other work (notably the SDS Regional Skills Assessments) looking at how the economy is functioning in a particular region.

Based on our employer interviews, there is more work required to help employers understand the full offer and services that DYW can provide to employers. DYW is a strategy, and as such there isn't currently an offer or a product that DYW and schools can take to employers that they understand and can easily engage with. Employers reported that the DYW brand is not well known or fully understood. This means that employers are not making the most of their engagement with DYW and schools and may be underestimating the impact of this partnership. This is partly due to the high turnover of DYW School Coordinators, but also a lack of marketing and promotion of the range of support that DYW could offer.

"Employers still have a certain lack of awareness of the DYW agenda." – Medium employer, DYW Edinburgh, Midlothian and East Lothian

DYW School Coordinators are valued, and employers feel this role is effective in coordinating employers, parents (who may also be employers) and teachers. While there is still work to do in promoting DYW and building relationships with DYW School Coordinators, employers feel that it is important for the Coordinator roles to continue, focusing on understanding how employers and sectors work, and increasing their awareness of the range of opportunities for young people.

"It would be helpful to share good practice for DYW School Coordinators, such as a central location where you can save resources. Every region has their own resources but would do well to share more, for example, career trees, online." – DYW School Coordinator

In addition, there is an expressed need for this engagement to be more strategic, linking together multiple employers throughout the region and in line with the economic priorities of the region.

"Some employers will use skills engagement with schools as a precursor to apprenticeships. They are starting to recruit from schools but there is a long way to go, and momentum is important – to get over the brow. I would worry if DYW wasn't there as it would have recognition but no drive." – DYW School Coordinator

"DYW is a unifying force. The profile of DYW has grown as a result and has provided greater impact as more than the sum of its parts." – DYW practitioner

However, not all employers agree that the responsibility of preparing young people for employment should sit with schools and DYW. One employer reflected that the responsibility of preparing young people for work should sit with employers and industry rather than with teachers and schools, as they are the experts on the skills and qualifications currently needed in the workplace.

"It's the role of industry (not schools) to teach young people about the world of work, and how to engage in the world of work – employers need to take some ownership of this. Schools are there to teach qualifications, employers are there to support the transition into work." – Employer and member of a DYW Regional Group

Further employer engagement

When asked about how the employer agenda could be expanded and how more employers could be encouraged to participate, employers identified four main themes:

  • Better promotion of, and increased marketing of, DYW and specific products or services they can offer to employers.
  • Developing a strategic, regional and national approach to increase engagement.
  • Creating a package of support for employers, including incentives.
  • Developing a more coordinated regional and national approach among agencies working in this area.

Better promotion and increased marketing of DYW, and the service offer. Employers felt better marketing and promotion of the service would ensure more employers were aware of DYW, what they can offer employers, and how this would benefit employers. Other suggestions included reaching out to more local businesses directly rather than waiting for employers to approach DYW and improving the DYW website to ensure employers have a clear idea of the offer.

Part of this includes securing funding for DYW over a longer period to enable momentum and opportunities for DYW to expand their agenda and relationships with schools and employers.

"There's no way that if DYW leaves the scene then employers would engage with schools. It would just go back to what it was before, and there would be a complete drop off in engagement." – Medium employer, DYW Edinburgh, Midlothian and East Lothian

The development of a clear service offer or products that can be offered to employers needs to be developed by DYW. The case study below, from an employer who also sits on a DYW Regional Group demonstrates how the development of a clear, and accessible offer will increase employer engagement and understanding:

Case study example: Developing a clear DYW offer for employers

"The messages and ask of employers from DYW (and schools) need to be clear. Employers do not have time to try and understand what it is they need to do and what this means in practice. When DYW come to an employer they need to be able to tell the employer exactly what's needed from them and when. This message and the request to the employer has to be clear.

We [DYW] need to understand, and help employers understand that developing the young workforce is not a service or offer to employers, it is a strategy. Employers therefore do not know what is expected of them, what they can do, or how they can contribute.

Unless there is a specific ask of employers (e.g. we want a visit to your manufacturing site), they won't do it. It requires too much thinking, and they have other challenges and commitments.

The DYW employer engagement activity hasn't really worked and that's why the numbers of engaged employers are lower than expected. The messaging to employers is not in industry speak – it's in government public sector chatter – employers don't know what this means. If DYW are doing a cold call to an employer this kind of language is unusual, it's very public sector. The language is not right if you're trying to engage more employers there needs to be more thinking around language. If you want to make a difference you have to change your message – it's the same as it's always been."

Developing a strategic, regional (and national) approach to engagement. To increase employer engagement, employers felt that DYW needed to:

  • Connect similar local employers together within regions and join up the different elements of employer engagement to create a package or framework for engagement.
  • Build networks for education and employers by connecting employers, schools, and colleges so that they work together to address local and regional challenges.
  • Coordinate more closely with other key organisations in young people's education and employment, such as SDS. This will help employers navigate the complex landscape and increase engagement.
  • Link in with regional and national challenges and opportunities, tapping into topical issues and events. Use the momentum and public support to encourage more employers to engage. A clear, well-planned calendar of activities will support employers and encourage them to sign up.

Case study example: Reaching a range of employers

DYW Dumfries and Galloway run business 'sector forums' in food and drink, construction, engineering and manufacturing, land and green economy. Businesses encourage other businesses to come together. Although dominated by medium sized companies, the forums provide a unified voice on policy for the sector and brings the various conversations together.

DYW Borders In the Borders, the Rotary Club is a useful contact, as its members represent a wide range of businesses. In order to get partners together DYW are developing a professional video of local businesses as a promotional tool for schools, linking this to the DYW agenda.

Some DYW Regional Groups have been able to develop a more integrated approach to employer engagement. These embed engagement with schools and young people in a wider set of connected services and support, which help employers link their engagement into a longer-term recruitment process, often with a strong focus on sectors which are growing and creating opportunities.

DYW Glasgow has used its Chamber of Commerce setting – and a close working relationship with Glasgow City Council – to stitch together employer engagement approaches which provide a range of opportunities built around key growth and high employment sectors.

Case study example: DYW Glasgow – an integrated, strategic approach to employer engagement

Glasgow Chamber of Commerce have been driving a more integrated approach to employer engagement for some time. They drew on intelligence from a range of partners to identify some specific projects as a focus for an integrated approach.

One focus has been climate change and sustainability and the rapidly growing opportunities around green jobs. My Climate Path is a COP26 education legacy initiative put together by DYW Glasgow, working with DYW Lanarkshire, East Dunbartonshire and DYW West, supported by the Chamber of Commerce and funded by the Scottish Government. It is made up of 11 initiatives (including sustainable fashion, earth allies, and activism) targeted at different year groups and different interests, with a focus on jobs in the circular economy. This is now being rolled out across Scotland. Related to this is the Climate Heroes project, matching one person in employment to every school, looking at green and circular jobs.

Glasgow as a growing digital hub and the Chamber has linked with Scotland IS (Scotland's digital economy membership organisation) to take forward the Digital Critical Friends pilot, which involves employees going into schools to support virtual activities. Scotland IS have lots of willing members and the Chamber has developed a strong collaborative approach with the organisation.

The Chamber has recognised that there are a lot of digital initiatives available for employers, with DYW and SDS asking a lot of employers for things that seem similar. An example is there are three initiatives asking employees about their journey. So, the Chamber are now working more closely with SDS and Glasgow City Council to find out what digital initiatives exist, who is working with whom, and identifying how to make it as coherent and coordinated as possible around some shared objectives.

The key features of Glasgow Chamber's DYW approach have been the development of a range of close working relationships, particularly with Glasgow City Council who is seen as a vital partner in identifying needs and supporting focused initiatives, a strategic approach to key sectors, and ensuring that employers experience a joined-up, integrated approach with 'at scale' offers.

Another example of a focused approach based on an identified need is Step Up Glasgow. This flowed from a recognition that whilst the Kick Start programme worked well for those eligible,15 and 16 year old school leavers were ineligible. Whilst some of these school leavers were work ready, it was identified that others required supportive employers, for example in the third sector. Step Up Glasgow was created to focus on this group with additional needs to partner them with employers who were willing to support the young person for 6 months or more to facilitate progress into employment or an apprenticeship. To date this initiative has involved 140 younger school leavers and has helped to raise positive destinations by 2%. It is now funded through No One Left Behind.

Create a package of support for employers that helps them navigate the landscape, and provides them with clear timelines, expectations, and benefits of involvement. To increase employer engagement, employers felt that DYW needed to:

  • More effectively promote the benefits to business of working with young people.
  • Provide practical support with processes, logistics, practicalities like risk assessments (e.g. a checklist of what you need in place). This will help employers to better plan for engagement in terms of staff time and costs.
  • Highlight the range of different engagement opportunities and how businesses can be involved.
  • SMEs may be in a very different position from larger organisations, but they employ large numbers of staff overall and can often provide a well-rounded and supported environment for young people in their first job. There is a perception that the amount of support a young person may need may be very time intensive and may take away from other aspects of the business. Employers would benefit from being able to see the full menu of possible engagements and the time commitment that would be associated with each of these.
  • Some employers felt that financial incentives could have a role to play as workplace support has both time and financial implications. This was also reflected in the focus of employers who had used ERI funding, who were motivated to take on new staff, and the ERI enabled them to do this, regardless of a wider interest in supporting youth employment. However, some employers felt incentives could also include non-financial help and support.
  • For many smaller employers, managing the process through to completion is too difficult, and other models such as an Apprenticeship Training Agency model could be applied.

"Definitely financial support – because I am using my time, I would be happy to volunteer some time but as a small business I can't volunteer very much – so if I had to do something like that, I would like some financial support. Assistance with DYW or a college tutor spending time within our business, perhaps giving some on-site training – inductions, health and safety, general rule – and approach." – Small employer, through Random sample from Chamber of Commerce

"Courses for free – such as how to promote your businesses, social media."– Small employer, through random sample from Chamber of Commerce

"I think some people don't engage because they're not aware of the benefits young people could bring. Before we engaged with DYW, we didn't realise the impact we can make. It can be rewarding and enjoyable, and it's actually a good way to develop people with other skills." – Small employer, DYW North-East

"Bring to life the benefit of bringing young people into the workplace. Retaining local skills and stopping the area losing skills to the central belt and wider UK." - Large employer, DYW Inverness and Central Highlands

Developing a more coordinated regional and national approach. Employers referred to the complex and crowded landscape in terms of the range of organisations contacting employers and the range of support schemes for employers. Those involved engagement with Scottish Enterprise / Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) / South of Scotland Enterprise (SOSE), Skills Development Scotland (SDS), DWP, local authorities (across a range of functions), further education colleges, as well as Chambers of Commerce and DYW. These are further supplemented by the engagement driven by representative organisations, including the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), Confederation of British Industry (CBI), and Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI).

The most successful approaches we came across involved Chambers of Commerce that sought to create a more coordinated approach to employer engagement and linking support schemes together around the needs of individual employers.

A SAAB member commented that the quality of relationships varied by Regional Group. If a large employer wanted to launch a national approach it was hard to know where to go. They felt that for national employers it would be valuable to have a single point of contact that could work across the Regional Groups.



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