Vocational skills champion Sara Caplan, from PwC, urges employers to broaden their view about the talent pool they draw on to benefit their business.

Sara Caplan
Sara Caplan

In my job, you get to meet many promising young people.

A story I like to share involves one young man who came from a small regional town and was working for a famous burger franchise, unsure of his next steps. Today, he’s flourishing in our graduate program and running the finances for my unit.

The twist in this tale is that he never went to university.

Robert, who is just 21, found his path by answering an ad for a program that PwC runs for ‘higher apprentices’, where we recruit people from school and offer on-the-job training. After completing 18 months building a range of skills in business and technology while concurrently working towards a diploma in business or IT, the apprentices are then eligible to enter the PwC graduate intake.

Alternative pathways – whether you call them apprenticeships, learning on the job or learning at work – should not just be about mastering a traditional trade. As a nation, we need to think much more imaginatively about creating new opportunities for our school leavers in areas including financial and professional services.

Quite frankly, if employers continue to narrow their view about the talent pool for their organisations – just focusing on university qualifications – they’re doing a real disservice to their workplace and the nation and stand to miss out on a huge number of young Australians who are talented, motivated and capable of becoming very skilled.

A broader approach is also good for business. At my firm, where we’ve been trialling recruiting school leavers not just in Australia but around the world, it has helped us diversify our workforce. We have successfully identified many talented people who would not have considered working in a tall tower of a global consulting firm as an option that was open to them.

I am passionate about extending opportunities to young people who don’t have the benefit of family connections or background to ease the path forward.

As the first person in my family to go to university – both my parents grew up in council houses in the UK – I am passionate about extending opportunities to young people who don’t have the benefit of family connections or background to ease the path forward.

So, what are the skills that are going to be important for their future?

As a society and economy, we certainly can’t get past the value of human skills: the ability to work together with other people in teams, to communicate, not just face to face, but through new forms of technology. The ability to think creatively and solve problems and innovate is also vital, as it is to be flexible and resilient so you can pivot to new opportunities. These enabling skills are going to be incredibly important – more so than in the past.

Beyond that, just about everything we do in the workplace will also be digitally enabled, so everyone is going to need a good set of digital skills: to understand the power of technology as well as having the knowledge to be cyber-safe.

We’re always going to need some people at university and doing master’s degrees and PhDs because we’re always going to need people pushing the boundaries of knowledge and creating the next new innovations. But more people don’t go to university than do, still.

I believe that in the future of work, a university degree won’t be seen as a prerequisite to be ‘successful’, as is the scenario now to the exclusion of other pathways. Work is changing dramatically in the 21st century. We need people from every walk of life in the workforce and we urgently need to broaden the talent pool we draw from.

Sara Caplan is a partner at the consulting firm PwC and leads its Skills for Australia arm. She has over 25 years’ experience in education, training and skills in the UK and Australia.

This column first appeared in the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s Youth Unemployment Monitor December 2019.