It is graduation time across the UK, and across much of the globe for that matter. The sight of robed young graduates with beaming families, strolling around city centers looking for somewhere to celebrate, is a common one at present. Yet despite the happiness one cannot fail to feel towards the proud parents and hopeful youngsters, there remains room to be skeptical. It is the very commonality of these scenes of celebration that are a serious cause for concern, both for the graduates themselves, for small businesses, and for the UK economy as a whole.

Those of a certain age will have memories of graduations over the years, many of which will have inevitably blended into one. One trend that those of a certain age must notice is just how frequently we now see graduands; huge numbers of students drifting towards major theatres, town halls and ballrooms for their big day. This stands in sharp contrast to just a few years ago, and in even sharper contrast to 20 years ago.

In 1982, universities received 171,000 applications from domestic and foreign students. In 2008, over 430,000 people applied to go to University. This year, according to UCAS figures, 580,000 applied to study at a university or higher education establishment. Many will point to changes in European immigration, and the huge increase in those coming from the far-East to study in the UK in recent years. All foreign students, however, account for less than 100,000 applications. In effect, the number of young British nationals applying to go to university has more than doubled in a few decades, which has been mirrored in a huge rise in foreign students applying to study here, many of whom will stay upon completing their studies.

What does this mean?

This is not an article about education-migration. This is not an article about the decline of the British education system; this author wishes to stay as far away from normative claims of this kind as possible. However, what these bare facts mean for British businesses, and more specifically small businesses, is very much the focus of this article.

A survey conducted by Sandler Training of over 1,000 small business owners recently revealed that three-quarters of those surveyed believe a University degree is less valuable now compared with a decade ago. This is a worrying trend, particularly given that SMEs typically employ over half of the UK’s private sector staff. This study goes some way in explaining the worrying level of youth unemployment in the UK at present, as so many 18-25 year olds pursue a qualification that their would-be future employers find of little value.

By no means is this lost on the small business owners themselves. Over half of those surveyed declared that they were worried about youth unemployment, rising to over 90% for the worst affected areas. Yet for all of that concern, under a quarter felt that the youth unemployment problem was the fault of SMEs in the UK, inclining to blame schools and government instead.

They may well have every right to be so inclined. The survey found that one in five had recently hired a new young employee, but of those, over 20% were frustrated that their new employee did not have the right skills, while a similar number found that they didn’t have the right attitude. This is certainly no anomaly; it is an experience being shared by small businesses right across the UK, at almost every level of operation and in almost every sector. Explaining this phenomena is relatively easy; fixing it will not be impossible, but it will require a concerted effort from the economic powerhouse that is the SME in Britain.

Deeper explanation

More people in higher education may seem, even on reflection, a very good idea for a high-value economy like the UK’s. More chemists mean more progress in making advanced chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and construction materials. More linguists mean more open and efficient trade. Yet this is not the real story of higher education in the UK.

As the de facto choice for young people who have no idea about what they want to do, or even what it is possible for them to do, University is being forced to offer an ever-widening range of subjects for its ever-growing army of students to take. Moreover, as the money-making behemoths that are the larger universities struggle to expand quickly enough to accommodate demand, new universities are springing up to sweep up the remaining market. These are often borne from or are an extension of old polytechnics, and will typically offer watered down versions of purely academic subjects, previously the preserve of people with a clear academic calling. The effect of this on the UK’s workforce is substantial.

Many students sleepwalk into social science and arts subjects at poor universities, where they are encouraged to cultivate a sense of entitlement. As they fail to find the jobs that they want, they become disheartened, and the value of having a job at all is lost on them. This results in a bad attitude, and ultimately a lack of applicable skills on the part of a lot of young people, who have essentially wasted 3 years where they could have been getting experience. This is undoubtedly partly the fault of universities, who make money on the back of this expectation building. In turn, graduates who are genuinely keen to work hard at any job they can find are often tarred with the same brush; un-motivated and ‘above their station’. The media does not help with this perpetuation of stereotype, but I will not discuss that here.

The government is making big statements about encouraging more apprenticeships and less useless degrees. This will be music to many a business owner’s ear, but it is doubtful that this will be enough to make a meaningful, effective change. To do that, small businesses themselves must take more responsibility; not for the cause, but for the solution.

Fixing the problem

A great deal of the problem is that young people seem to think that going to university will always leave them in a better position in the job market. This is much to the lament of many small businesses, and to the young themselves, when they emerge from university in largely the same position (in employment terms, not intellectually) as when they went in.

Small businesses could do a great deal more in actively advertising the skill set that they require to young people, to help guide them to the jobs that they want. It is no bad thing that many people go to university for job opportunities rather than love of a subject and a desire for greater understanding. Rather, that is possibly the most life-enriching thing you can do. Yet for those who just want a career, SME owners can promote the values and skills that they want from their workforce, and help young people make the right decisions.

Many people believe that young people will no longer be wooed by the promise of a steady, rather unglamorous, but paying job. This is rather patronizing, and assumes things about young people based on consequences outside of their control.

SMEs are not promoting the benefits that experience, rather than university, can give you when trying to find a job, often on the assumption that they don’t want to work for a small, local business. I challenge a small business owner to ask the majority of Oxbridge graduates who are working in coffee chains around the UK what they would prefer: the chance to help a small enterprise grow (or survive), or continue in their corporate bondage?


Do not be afraid of your own size, or lack of it. In my experience, the older generation were thrilled to get a job that paid steady wages, and offered a pension. My own grandparents worked in a sugar factory for most of their lives, and loved how easily they could save, given the moderate pay and steady savings scheme. It is this author’s firm belief that young people today are no different, but the advertising does not exist to capitalize on these desires. This is why SMEs will often perceive young people as uninterested in their industry; companies are now sold in a ‘one-size fits all’ manner, with grand titles and meaningless job descriptions.

Find the best access point to the local youth community. Try and look beyond the job center, youth clubs and community centers, although these are good for starters. Research local sports clubs, activities centers, even social venues, and enquire about simple advertising.

Make it clear what you expect, and what they can expect from you. When this author was first seeking employment after graduating, I and most other of the young unemployed would have given several limbs to see the advertisement: “Wanted – hard worker. Must apply intelligence and energy to making the company money. Work is dull, but work is work. Steady pay.”

Most importantly, get over the experience fetish. Many SMEs demand extensive experience that the vast majority of young people simply don’t have. Without SMEs, it is doubtful that they will get it. Placing faith in somebody’s competence and intelligence will more than make up for any mistakes they inevitably make in a teething period. Here it is important to note that even experienced professionals have an adjustment period when changing roles or companies, where mistakes are common. Employing inexperienced but eager-to-learn youngsters will mean when they reach an equivalent pay-grade to experienced professionals, they are well settled and adding value to your business.

What is really necessary however is a harmonized message from SMEs and a concerted, bottom-up, and organised effort to get that message across to young people: you do not need a degree, but you need to be enthusiastic to learn. If you work hard, you will be rewarded. That message has been lost over the years, and it is the natural rallying cry of the small enterprise.

It is up to the owners of small and medium sized enterprises to develop and nurture a proper medium for getting that message across. Doing so at a local level is the natural place to start, and it will bear fruit when, down the line, SME owners can get together and present a rewarding career opportunity to so many highly intelligent, highly capable young people, who are currently wallowing in repetitive and unrewarding jobs. – Guardian