Too Much Too Young: Why Companies Shouldn’t Expect Schools to Do Their Work

Hundreds of thousands of UK 16 year olds got their GCSE results yesterday with record grades reported yet again.  The vast majority of these will be welcomed by further education establishments in September as they begin working towards higher level academic or vocational qualifications.

But for those who choose not to progress in education the welcome from employers is less warm.  The most recent quarterly survey of the labour market by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development released on Tuesday this week suggests that employers are choosing to recruit from the wider European Union, claiming that they are better skilled to take on the roles available than young people from the UK.  In fact, only 12% of employers are interested in recruiting 16 year olds – a drop of 25% since last year.

The CIPD reports that employers believe that school leavers lack the necessary levels of literacy and numeracy required, and also that they do not have sufficient customer service or communication skills.

It is interesting that employers are identifying customer service skills as amongst the most important skill they seek in new recruits.  On the one hand it highlights the importance of customer service in the economy and shows that employers appreciate the need to have a specific skill set in order to do these roles well and are considering where best to find them.

On the other hand, the fact that customer service skills were specifically mentioned in the context of the recruitment of school leavers and no other vocational skills were highlighted, implies that many employers continue to view customer service as a “young person’s game” and suggests that customer service roles may represent a large proportion of the roles that are available to school leavers.

This raises a couple of questions.

First, are customer service skills really part of what we require our children to be taught during their years of compulsory education?  The other skills mentioned are clearly central to life success:  numeracy, literacy and communication skills are fundamental to almost any job someone will do in their lives. 

But are skills such as delivering outstanding service, going the extra mile for customers, organization-specific problem resolution and even active listening on the telephone really what we want our children to spend their time learning, even if it were possible.  Shouldn’t these be the skills that good organizations train employees in themselves?. 

However, if by skills these employers actually mean the values, attitudes and personality traits which suit someone for customer service such as empathy, desire to make people happy, resilience and a sense of pride in helping others, then “skills” is probably not the right term.  These are either better understood as innate tendencies or preferences developed as a result of a person’s sum total life experiences, especially in their very early years.  Either way, schools can’t be held responsible for the presence or lack of them in their school leavers. 

This sheds a different light on what employers mean by customer service skills and the good news for employers is that this means there will be some 16 year olds who through their natural style and established values and attitudes will be ideally suited to customer service roles at the age of 16.  Clearly the onus is on employers to find and train those young people if they have customer service roles to fill. 

However, it is not surprising that employers notice a scarcity of 16 year olds who already have the characteristics required to deliver outstanding customer service.  These are special qualities and the clustering of personality traits, values and attitudes that will enable someone, of any age or education, to build genuine, warm and enduring customer relationships for an organization are relatively scarce throughout the whole population.

This brings us to the second question.  Does the emphasis on customer service skills when referring to the skill lacking in school leavers, suggest that employers are filling their customer service roles overwhelmingly with very young people and overlooking the increased likelihood of finding what they are looking for amongst older age groups? 

Let’s hope that it isn’t that organizations are being led by an employment market which generally places customer service roles as amongst the lowest paid in the economy and therefore young people with lower wage expectation are the most obvious groups from which to recruit.  Let’s hope instead that many organizations are customer-centric and are led to good applicant pools not by how much (or how little) they will work for, but by the skills, values, attitudes and experience that will deliver the quality of service that their customers would like.  

If that is the case, then employers will also be looking at groups of older people who, like young people, are finding it hard to get employment.  Groups like women returning to work and needing child-friendly hours or people over 55 for example.  These groups will have had greater opportunity to develop skills through their life experiences that will be invaluable to customer service departments: conflict resolution, time management, diplomacy and multiple task management all spring immediately to mind.

However, research is increasingly demonstrating that older people also tend to bring more personal qualities that would support sensitive and individual customer handling such as increased emotional intelligence (I covered this in a previous post ) and decision making. 

Decision making across the age groups has recently been re-evaluated as previous research had suggested that young people were better at decisions.  However, Darrell Worthy and colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin have just demonstrated that older adults, in this case the over 60s, are better at evaluating immediate and delayed benefits of decisions and developing strategies for good decision making than college-age adults. 

This research is previewed by the Association of Psychological Science and will be published in a forthcoming Journal of Psychological Science.  It will make interesting reading since the very best customer service often depends on giving customer service representatives the freedom and autonomy to help customers according their unique problems and preferences.  Good decision making will be key to providing customers with good solutions.

That our children need to leave school numerate and able to read, write and speak well goes without saying.  But the leap to customer service skills is something quite different.  Given the concerns about literacy, numeracy and communication it can’t be sensible to have 14-16 year olds spending valuable educational time on developing a specific and generally organization-specific set of vocational skills. 

Rather than complaining that school leavers in the UK are not coming out of education with sufficient customer service skills, employers need to take control of the situation and invest in finding, recruiting, engaging and training people of all ages and backgrounds who have a natural predisposition for customer service.  That is the way to build an outstanding service workforce and leapfrog the competition. 

Links and References

Association of Psychological Science press release for the forthcoming article on decision making and age

Further information on the study on age-related decision making from 

CIPD Labour Market Report: Summer 2011


One Comment to “Too Much Too Young: Why Companies Shouldn’t Expect Schools to Do Their Work”

  1. One organisation which probably doesn’t entirely agree with my sentiments in the post here is Sitel.

    A link to a blog tweeted by Richard Shapiro (@RichardRShapiro) shows that this US service organisation is writing books specifically for young children about what customer service agents do.

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