Better links needed between employers and academia
The financial services industry plays an increasingly significant role in the Scottish economy. It employs 90,000 people, each of whom produces, on average £81,395 per year, accounting for seven per cent of the countrys output.
Many of the biggest investment companies have bases north of the border, making Scotland a world centre, and they are responsible for managing £650 billion worth of funds. The industrys importance to the countrys capacity for wealth creation cannot be overestimated.
If the UK is to emerge from recession speedily and healthily, it is important industries that are strong and load bearing are given the support they need to thrive. The way in which modern economies develop and grow is through collaboration, support and nurturing.
Yet the pace of change has never been quicker and, where industries find themselves behind the curve of technological and skills development, its important that everyone with an interest does their bit to help it catch up.
The financial services industry is facing such a challenge as the skilled school leavers and graduates it needs to maintain its place at the forefront of global advance are not being produced in sufficient numbers.
A skills gap is emerging that could threaten the growth of the sector unless companies work more closely together with schools and universities to ensure that people who want to work in this fast moving and challenging environment are properly equipped to do so.
Research conducted by my organisation, Scottish Investment Operations (SIO), which represents some of the biggest financial companies, highlighted concerns among employers that a lack of employability skills were one of the main barriers to recruiting and retaining new staff.
Employers questioned said there were particular problems with numeracy and communication with problem solving and lack of initiative also highlighted as areas of concern.
The research also suggested that young people had, in some cases, unrealistic expectations about working in financial services, while others had an unnecessarily downbeat opinion of the level of job satisfaction they could expect.
Businesses reported a deterioration of general work-readiness among new entrants with some candidates exhibiting a poor attitude towards their work, failing to work effectively in teams and to share responsibility.
A lack of understanding of the culture of the workplace was also reported, including inappropriate work dress, poor time keeping and attendance and a lack of flexibility on employer requirements. A whats in it for me culture rather than a what can I do to help the company was mentioned in the employer focus groups.
There was also a view that expectations set at university were unrealistic. Students had the highest self belief in their worth but often failed to contribute effectively to their employer which hindered their career progression. Their attitudes were often characterised as but Im a graduate, I should be doing more than this.
No-one in the industry is seeking to assign blame. Rather, we are interested only in finding a solution to the problem. The first thing companies have done is to assume responsibility for helping new recruits and those already in work to develop the skills necessary to do their job.
Last year SIO, in partnership with the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland and the Chartered Institute of Bankers in Scoitland, introduced the first professional qualification for investment accountants.
It has proved so successful that it is now being rolled out globally. From later this year, a distance learning version of the course, administered in Edinburgh, will be taken by investment industry professionals in the rest of the UK, Europe, India and China.
We want to work with schools and universities to help ensure that what they teach those aspiring to work in our industry more closely resembles the type of skills we need from them.
Among the ideas being proposed are internships for students in financial services companies so they can get real work experience at the same time as they are studying theory. We also want to bring the world of work closer to young people and showcase all that is on offer to those considering careers.
SIO has also introduced a shorter, week long, crash course for graduates, Introduction to Investment Operations, which gives them the basic knowledge needed to work in the sector.
Among those who have already benefited from the course is Jennifer Stewart, 23, from Golspie, Sutherland, who graduated last year with an MA (HONS) in accountancy and business Law from Heriot-Watt University but was unable to find a job.
After attending the Introduction to Investment Operations course, with the help of funding from Skills Development Scotland, Jennifer was offered two jobs and is now working as a fund analyst with BlackRock, one of the worlds pre-eminent investment firms
She told me: "I honestly lost count of how many jobs I applied for and I didn't get any interviews. It was so frustrating as I didn't understand how I could gain experience if nobody would give me a chance.
"The course to me was a lifeline in terms of finding work and getting into the industry. It helped put the textbook work of university into a real life perspective which was extremely valuable.
"As part of the course I met with representatives of several companies which gave me the stepping stone to the interview. Without that I feel that I may still be unemployed. It gave me the contacts I needed to get a foot in."
These qualifications seek to apply accounting and finance skills to the unique requirements of our industry. Our goal is to develop, deepen and sustain relevant skills, knowledge and expertise across the sector to help it to help the Scottish economy grow. That is in everyones interest.