employeeengagementThousands of school leavers hold their breath as they await the GSCE and A Level results that will help determine the direction they take towards establishing and building a career.

But this year, more young people will look beyond university in pursuit of finding employment or training through another route – driven by the increase in university fees and high levels of graduate unemployment.

It’s a crucial time for school leavers, but it’s also a crucial time for employers across all sectors of the economy. It’s an opportunity to snap up keen and motivated school leavers who are not only determined to enter the world of work but who show a real willingness to learn.

For years we have relied on the higher education system and given little incentive to schools to promote alternative options. This was driven by the previous governments target to ensure 50 per cent of young people attended university – an approach that many argue has devalued degrees. The performance of schools was subsequently judged on the academic achievement of pupils and the numbers going through the university system. There was also little interaction between the education system and employers. The quality of careers advice declined and we failed to make young people aware of other routes into the professions or equip them with a range of choices suited to them and their individual skill sets.

This approach failed the other 50 per cent who didn’t go on to higher education. It did little to help social mobility with Ed Miliband himself saying that there is a snobbery attached to university education. It certainly did no favours for vocational qualifications and apprenticeships.

There is a bias within our education system that ranks academic qualifications above vocational education and training. Other European countries – namely Austria, Germany and Switzerland – have demonstrated that the two can be equal pathways into a wide range of jobs and careers. The German apprenticeship system embraces most school leavers who do not go on to higher education and as a result youth unemployment is only 7.5 per cent – the lowest in Europe.

To create a highly-skilled workforce and remain competitive in the modern world, political parties see a need to place employers in the driving seat when it comes to skills policy and development. Employers understand what business needs and where the skills gaps are.

But it is easier said than done. Despite the rhetoric, successive governments have failed to engage employers effectively. There continues to be a dysfunctional disconnect between the interests of the education and skills establishment, and the needs of employers.

Since they were introduced, AAT has successfully delivered the qualifications that underpin apprenticeships particularly at the higher levels that have been prioritised by Government. In 2011/12, there were over 2000 starts on the Higher Apprenticeship in Accountancy, which has since its inception, had the highest take-up of any Level 4 apprenticeship. But the decision to amend the Specification for Apprenticeship Standards in England (SASE) for Higher Apprenticeships – has forced us to reshape our qualifications and change something that demonstrably meets the needs of employers.

In a crude attempt to align vocational and academic pathways, SASE has decided to require comparable credit values for academic and vocational programmes. This is completely inappropriate. The fact is that we are not comparing like with like. Apprentices are not university students. Apprentices learn more practically by applying knowledge in the workplace. SASE measures only formal qualification related credits. The skills and experience apprentices attain through working – invaluable to them and to employers – receive no credit value whatsoever.

Our research shows employers want to play a role in qualification development with nearly two fifths (37 per cent) believing they should be heavily involved. It also reveals how the priorities of employers are very much changing with an overwhelming 88 per cent placing more emphasis on candidates’ skills.

The accountancy sector is leading the way in proactively training young people to become professionals. AAT works with 600 accredited employers across all sectors of the economy – many of which offer high quality, competitive school leaver programmes. It’s now common for a school leaver to reach chartered status quicker than someone who took the university route and there is nothing to stop them reaching the top of the tree.

Our qualifications are built around giving individuals practical skills and knowledge and we’re proud to say that we’ve involved employers in the development process over the years. As a result, our accounting technicians are highly regarded and sought after.

Employers know what they want so we need to start giving them more credit, and stop placing obstacles in their path. They need to open their recruitment processes to people of all skill levels and backgrounds, and be empowered to do so. Do this and we might just be able to reinvent our education system, stamp out bias, fill the gaps and get young people qualified and into work.