We need a common language for skills

Mar 19, 2020 | Sector & policy

You say tomato, I say tomayto, ISE CEO Stephen Isherwood ponders whether we should call the whole debate off and agree a common base language for employability skills

The first paid job I had was to deliver 38 newspapers, six mornings a week, come rain, hail, hurricane, fog, sleet, snow, moonlight or sunshine.

At the newsagents by 6:30am, along with a dozen other half-asleep teenagers to collect dayglo bags stuffed with the day’s papers, then off I’d cycle to the north end of town.

Now before I come over all Monty Python, I-used-to-lick-the-road-clean-half-an-hour-before-I-got-up, I should point out that my mum stopped me doing this paper-round because she thought it was affecting my studies (she was half right, I was more awake when I next went to school but didn’t exactly work harder).

Mum was prescient.

The proportion of teens with part-time jobs has halved over the last twenty years according to the Resolution Foundation, often due to pressure to achieve good grades.

But it is through experience that students start to understand the workplace. Through a mix of paper-rounds, summers washing dishes and Saturdays stacking shelves, I learnt to be punctual, deal with some awkward people and get stuff done.


Socrates implored his students to examine their own lives. We are still struggling to develop self-awareness some 2,400 years later. Both careers services and employers agree that even when students have gained experience from work, volunteering, or any activity of merit they did of their own volition, often they can’t translate it into the world of word. Our skills terminology doesn’t help. According to our latest Development Survey, the top five skills employers seek are: teamwork, interpersonal skills, listening, problem solving, taking responsibility and time management. The scarcest are self-awareness, resilience and business appropriate communication skills.

A shelf in an ISE cupboard is stacked full of reports on the UK’s skills and productivity crisis. All are good at analysing our problem, some even make a good stab at suggesting solutions. But every report invariably includes a unique skills matrix.

And every student employer also has their own competency grid that defines a successful graduate. And every university has a map of attributes that allows their students to follow a unique path.

A common language

At this point it’s worth noting that technical skills are in a different category. Recruiters of accountants, marketeers, lawyers, salespeople, scientists, techies and engineers have differing industry specific technical requirements.

But when it comes to core skills (another term employability specialists argue about) we do a disservice to students. You say tomato, I say tomayto. Teamwork or collaboration skills, organization skills or time management, resilience or flexibility, business acumen or commercial awareness. We should call the whole debate off and agree a common base language to work from.

Mathew Taylor in his ‘Good Work’ report called on “Government [to] seek to develop a unified framework of employability skills and encourage stakeholders to use this framework”. The best chance of doing this, in schools at least, is the Skills Builder Partnership founded by Tom Ravenscroft. Using straightforward language and supported by a range of employers and others, including the Gatsby Foundation and the Careers & Enterprise Company, the framework can be used to give clear direction to students.

‘What do employers want?’, is the question I’m asked most often. A common framework we could all build from would reduce confusion amongst students and help them focus on the skills they need to develop for work (and life).

Another thing I learnt after an Easter holiday washing dishes for only £3 a shift: ask how much I was getting paid before I received my pay packet.

Read about skills in ISE Student Development Survey 2020



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