Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment for young people has increased, with many students seeking work experience and nearly one-half feeling unprepared for employment. With more young people than ever in need of work, but with a lack of confidence in their skills, employers too are facing a crisis of confidence in their pipeline of future talent — not least within the burgeoning tech sector.

With reports of a surge in university applications this year, it appears that the effects of the pandemic may have reversed previous years’ downward higher education trends. But is this reversal good news for employers? Does it signal a positive shift in young people’s attitudes towards higher education, or does it show a lack of confidence in other routes? While university applications are rising, the COVID-19 pandemic substantially impacted apprenticeship starts, which declined by almost one-half. While these are beginning to recover to pre-COVID levels, they are still failing to reach the ambitious figures hoped for by the government.

A Skills Deficit

The tech skills deficit is a perpetual issue for employers. Despite the boom in technology-driven organizations, companies struggle to hire young employees with the skills needed to slot into roles quickly and confidently. Universities are not equipping graduates to make the leap into work, while apprenticeships lag in popularity.

The result is that significant resources are spent by employers upskilling young professionals, who themselves have invested heavily in their education to find that it is not always fit for purpose. This is a problem that has been recognized not only in the technology sector but across industries. Skills-based study, such as apprenticeships, continue to lag, even though they are based on work-ready training principles that are so vital for employers.

However, as Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Institute of Student Employers, recently mentioned, “We hear from many employers that apprentice training routes deliver an increasingly important source of talent.” Similarly, industry group techUK recently warned that despite more of its members now offering apprenticeships, “technology innovation is accelerating faster than the pipeline of people available to fill the gaps.”

The pandemic has only accelerated the need for specialized technical talent and on-the-job experience. Apprenticeships can help narrow the technical skills and talent gaps either in place of or alongside traditional higher education.

Employers Must Play Their Part

The truth is that if employers want young people to arrive prepared and ready to go, they need to play their part in facilitating the journey — well before their new starter arrives on day one. If employers want to close the skills gap, they must take some responsibility for engaging young people well ahead of the time they make their career decisions.

For example, companies like IBM, A&O and HCL Technologies are offering students the opportunity to gain niche technical skills from an early age. IBM has announced a roadmap with more than 170 new academic and industry partnerships to make this a reality.

However, with any such initiative, employers must understand the skills they need to grow and innovate, not just focus on the skills of today but be ready for those of tomorrow. Foresight and understanding of future technologies, trends and capabilities are vital in building a solid talent pipeline. This is not an easy task and requires specialist insight that can provide a holistic view of the organization’s needs alongside the broader trajectory of the industry and the current and future educational landscape.

Such an approach is evidence of an organization’s true culture of learning — not only offering continuous skills-building and development opportunities to employees but also to future talent. Understanding future skills requirements and engaging young people in developing those skills and experiences prior to employment isn’t just a ‘nice to have’. It should be considered a business imperative — a preventative strategy to ensure a lack of skills doesn’t jeopardize future growth and resilience.

Not only that, but it is the right thing to do. Evidence suggests that apprenticeships undertaken by young people are associated with significant benefits for individuals, employers and the wider economy. With the financial cost of continuing higher education, apprenticeships open the doors for an entirely new pool of candidates that may not otherwise meet qualifications for certain technical careers. You can teach skills, but you can’t replace individual experiences — and the more diverse perspectives businesses can acquire, the better.

Engaging potential apprentices early in their education sows seeds in fertile minds, not only preparing young people for the real world of work but showing them the possibilities open to them. The tech sector is dependent on future talent. If organizations want to reap the rewards of young talent, they must be prepared to invest in the groundwork. That means no longer relying on universities and colleges to do all the prep-work, but rolling up sleeves and getting to work tending their future employees.