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Employers Should Value School Leavers

A good disaster movie carries with it the hope of survival in the face of overwhelming odds as many perish around you. Watch the same movie years later and it often looks over-hyped. And so it is with A Level results day, which takes place tomorrow. Built up as a life-or-death event, it is the cause of severe stress, elation and despair. Much of that centres around university entry grades, but is university always the best choice? And is there a future for those who don’t make it, or choose a different path in life?

Rémy Mishon, a 25-year-old interior designer from north London, said her school put too much pressure on her to go to university. She opted not to go, and does not regret her decision. Rémy told CLASS that going straight into work can be the right choice for some people, but also employers needed to value more highly the qualities that school leavers bring. Watch the video here:

One study found that graduates can earn on average £250,000 more in their lifetimes compared to those with two A levels but no degree. Measuring this is not a precise science, and the university grade, subject, and the type of university, are all complicating factors. In addition, Oxbridge and LSE add an earnings premium to future salaries. Social class and background influence decisions around going to university, which university and which courses. The chosen profession also makes a big difference, with medicine and dentistry graduates earning almost twice that of art and design graduates.

But that is not the full story. Not everyone is suited to academic study, including high-earning entrepreneurs. Others may well be suited to higher education but are put off by discouraging advice. Predicted grades often mark down those from disadvantaged backgrounds, while those from more privileged families often get into prestigious higher education institutions with lower A level results. Add to that the disincentive of student fees for those from poorer families, and the system is weighted heavily in favour of those who were born into advantage.

While on average non-graduates earn less, and are more concentrated in low-skilled and low-wage jobs, for some not going to university is a positive choice that allows them to gain vital work experience and life skills in their career of choice. And its not all rosy for graduates. Those from low performing universities actually earn less than their counterparts than those who didn’t go to higher education at all, while graduates are increasingly forced to take up jobs that don’t require a degree.

Many who pick up their A level results tomorrow will find themselves caught in a trap. On one side is a harsh labour market rife with exploitative employees, gig economy precarious work and unrewarding internships where good opportunities are so scant that graduates are competing for low skilled jobs with non-graduates. On the other side is a higher education system that saddles graduates with debt and no guarantee of a good job at the end of study. While both scenarios are fear-inducing, some will still be motivated by dreams and aspirations. The reality is that both paths can lead to success or failure but, as Rémy Mishon says in the video, not going to university need not be the end of the world.

While some graduates are in jobs that don’t match their skills, other employers are looking for ‘employability’ which a degree does not always guarantee. Experts say there is no graduate oversupply in the economy. Talent needs to be developed and skilled-up whether or not that talent holds a degree. Employers can benefit from a more holistic approach, not simply using degrees as a recruitment filter. And society will benefit from dispelling any stigma attached to not attending university; after all a degree is not definitive proof of critical thinking or research ability. Instead, a greater emphasis on life-long learning, in a world facing the challenges of automation, artificial intelligence and globalisation, will put the individual and their growth and development at the centre rather than a piece of paper.

The stress of A levels is in part because it is presented as an 18-plus exam that divides white collar from blue collar, success and failure. Yet not going to university can also bring career fulfillment with focus, ambition and hardwork. Advice and mentoring help, along with the constant pursuit of skills that are in demand. Employers could find the right match for positions from A level school leavers if they are more open-minded. So for those collecting their A levels, not getting the grades does not have to spell disaster. It can be the start of an exciting journey for those who navigate through an unfair economy. Whether or not they go on to higher education, young people will face many challenges, but would do well to stay optimistic, passionate and flexible. 

PHOTO: College Connections