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Are employers sending the right signals to students?

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Research and surveys, Work experience, Youth employment

It is a common refrain from employers’ groups that their members are unable to find young employees with the right experience as well as the right skills. Dig a little deeper, and those headlines about feckless youth are often unfounded. But put yourself in the shoes of a school age student in an exam hall this summer. Isn’t it obvious that time spent away from the books, even to earn a few bob, is time poorly spent?

That conventional wisdom seems to be at least in part behind the headline finding from the latest report on youth employment by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), which found a noticeable decline in the number of young people that were combining work and full-time study. It looks like we might be seeing the ‘death of the Saturday job’.

Previous research has shown benefits from earning and learning in the shape of better job prospects and higher earnings further along the career path, however this latest report shows a long term decline, most noticeably amongst 16-17 year olds for whom the proportion combing study and work has dropped from 42% to only 18%. The decline is more modest amongst 18-24 year olds but the report does flag up variations amongst regions and household circumstances.

If employers want to encourage students to gain additional experience of the workplace then they need to take heed of some of the reasons behind these changes.

The main reason most give for not earning and learning (55%) is a desire to focus purely on studies. Employers need to take note of a clear battle between attaining good grades and gaining valuable work experience. The main drivers are a fear of not doing well in exams coupled with the need to play it safe. As businesses look to hire those trainees with high grades and degrees from top universities (even if the role may not necessary require them) the risk of being filtered out seems to hang heavy. Particularly as many studying show a very negative perception of longer term working outcomes based on low levels of qualification.

Second most common reason given for not mixing work with study is the condition of the local labour market. Rejection is hard to take at any career stage but  for those just starting on the ladder it can be a huge blow. Anecdotally I hear of Saturday jobs at cinemas attracting application volumes into four figures, with many of those applying already having jobs elsewhere but looking to earn extra cash. In these circumstances employers may be tempted to go with an experienced person, even if this denies a younger worker the chance to gain some much needed experience. There would certainly be great benefits for both the local community and the aspirations of the future workforce if some of these roles could go to those studying.

The nature of work and working arrangements also plays a part in the decision not to mix work and study. Many young workers now find themselves employed through temporary or zero-hours contracts, whilst the sectors traditionally offering work to 16 - 17 year olds - retail, hotels and restaurants - are now favouring more experienced workers on flexible contracts. Some of these flexible working arrangements, however, may not actually offer hours that are commensurate with lecture and project work times.

The UKCES report also features some interesting insights from qualitative research amongst focus groups of young workers and employers, with the former voicing concern over possible stress from combining work and study whilst the latter aware of the competing demands on younger workers from businesses and education providers.

Overall there are clear messages to students as well as employers. Students need to think carefully about their broader profile: although it’s difficult with the tunnel vision of examinations looming, book smarts may not be the single thing employers look for. And if those employers want the balanced, experienced, skilled employees we hear so much about, they need to give younger employees flexibility to fit in competing imperatives of grades and work. Unfortunately, there are no A*s for diary management.


Mervyn Dinnen is an award winning blogger and a content & social engagement strategist. He specialises in the Recruitment and HR sectors and is a regular speaker and panellist at industry conferences. You can view his blog at

This post gives the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of UKCES or Commissioners.

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