How Ed-tech can help close the skills gap and improve employability for young people

Author: Sherry Coutu CBE, Chairman, Founders4Schools and The ScaleUp Institute

There is a wide body of material about the skills crisis facing the UK, especially for girls. Research from the Social Market Foundation & EDF (2017) shows that 640,000 STEM jobs will need to be filled in the next 6 years. Many of these jobs haven’t even been invented yet. Founders4Schools (F4S) works with educators, young people, employers and partners to help understand and close this gap. As an EdTech organisation, they are dedicated to improving the life chances of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds by connecting them to business leaders. They have brokered over 250,000 student-employer encounters for 100,000 students to date. In this article, Sherry Coutu sets out more on their approach and plans.

There is a wide body of material about the skills crisis facing the UK, and rightly so. Research from the Social Market Foundation & EDF (2017) shows that 640,000 STEM jobs will need to be filled in the next six years. As many as 65% of these jobs haven’t even been invented yet, according to research shared by RAND Europe. The acquisition of skills to do the jobs of today, let alone the jobs of the future, are critical across all age groups.

I applaud the dedication of the Corsham Institute and others, many of who are also writing for Observatory, to collaborate with Government, citizens and other stakeholders, and address the critical issues raised in our digital age. We need to continue to shout about it, and I commend the BBC teams for a fabulous job at raising awareness – long may it continue!

Founders4Schools’ (F4S) mission builds on the excellent careers research done by the Careers & Enterprise Company (CEC) and others that demonstrate how vital it is to ensure that every young person gets at least four encounters with employers each year, while they are between the ages of 8 and 16, and 140 hours of work experience while they are between the ages of 16 and 24. We are an EdTech organisation dedicated to make sure these connections improve the life chances of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who lack access to professional role models, by connecting them to business leaders. Advances in technology help make these connections easier and scalable. Such encounters improve the employability of young people by helping them understand the skills they need and enabling them to make informed decisions about their future. Our success has allowed us to work with thousands of teachers, schools and businesses to broker requests for over 250,000 student-employer encounters for 100,000 students to date.


I am excited by the findings of the Corsham Institute’s Thought Leadership reports (2017), on how digital technologies can make education more efficient and accessible, particularly to reach isolated groups of all ages. As we know, it’s critical for the future employment market that we inspire more young people to take STEM subjects, whether at A Level or T Level. For the here and now, there is also a need to focus on refresher training and knowledge transfer for all ages.

The Open University reports (Telegraph, 2 July 2017) that skills shortages are costing UK businesses £2bn a year. That’s one indication of the cost of the huge, economy-damaging shortage in candidates for technology, science and data jobs. This year, less than one per cent of students took an A level in computing and only 15% studied a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering or Maths) subject. We should be especially concerned about the uneven playing field in acquiring STEM skills regionally, which expands socio-economic differences in society, and the lack of appeal of these subjects to girls.

ASPIRES research highlights that STEM engagement falls in young women from 72% at age 10 to just 19% at age 18. They are far more likely to want to become a celebrity or hairdresser! The team’s focus on science highlights the need to shift the conversation in ways that broaden young people’s views of where it can lead. Arguably, that approach could apply to all STEM subjects, across the spectrum of age and background.

We are pleased the Government has taken forward the recommendations of the Report of the Independent Panel on Technical Education, chaired by Lord Sainsbury (2016), and the Post-16 Skills Plan into a T Level Action Plan (2017). It’s great that the first three ‘T’ Level courses in 2020 will include Digital, along with Construction, Education and Childcare. To make these courses as ‘rigorous and respected as A Levels’ will require close engagement with employers and others to ensure skills needs are met. They must represent a broad but clear path to future occupation, incorporating apprenticeships and other substantial work placements with an employer.

At Founders4Schools (F4S) we know that helping educators connect young people with inspirational leaders, especially women, helps shift that conversation. I believe, in extending that to include work experience, and applying digital solutions, we can make it even easier – and scalable.

Collaborations – those that are ‘stepping in’

The ScaleUp Report (2014) found that 82% of scaleups say they could grow their businesses if applicants had the required skills. As the founder of the ScaleUp Institute, I know there are legions of growing companies across the UK who would relish tapping into and helping to create a pipeline of talent. But these companies are not always front of mind when teachers and parents are guiding young people’s work experience choices, and they often don’t have the resources to market themselves.

It's a focus because 99% of companies are small and 100% of net new jobs in the economy come from companies less than four years old.

Using our technology, a young person is introduced to business leaders through encounters such as Career Talks, Mock Interviewing, or Career Fairs that we help an educator facilitate. These lay the foundation for further engagement. Workplace visits are recommended to start to put into greater context what young people have learned in the classroom.

Ninety-four percent of students who have met business leaders via Founders4Schools (F4S) tell us they are inspired and their teachers report they are three times more likely to go on to consider studying a STEM subject. Further, research with Education and Employers Taskforce by Professor Anthony Mann et al. (2017) found that just four encounters with business leaders render a child 86% less likely to become NEET (not in employment, education or training) beyond school-age years.

It works! We recently celebrated our F4S 2017 awards at the Crick Institute in London and I was bowled over by the ways in which we have collaborated with educators, business leaders and partners in ways that have genuinely made a difference to the lives of young people. Amongst many others, we recognised Kathryn Loughnan from Avonbourne College in Bournemouth, who has facilitated 1,740 student-employer encounters since 2013, and Nick Cheese, School Co-ordinator, Greenwood Academy, Birmingham, who after bringing in business leaders to inspire 150 Year 9 students showed us a way to incorporate a career co-ordinator journey into our service.

However, the award for demonstrating the potential for scalability of our services must go to Stirling Council, who in just a few months in 2017 have reached nearly 800 SEE’s per 1,000 students. Through leadership and true collaboration across the community, they are now leading the way in Scotland.

Work experience builds on that, which is why it should be an important part of future qualifications, and integral to career guidance for young people. The Gatsby Foundation ‘Good Career Guidance’ Report (2014) states that, by the age of 16, every pupil should have had at least one experience of the workplace.

So, here are some of the ways that F4S is using technology to help.

Technology in Education


Lord Sainsbury’s report called on Government to help schools and colleges embed the fifteen technical education routes into careers education and guidance, saying, “It is important the labour market data used to form the routes provides information relevant to the current and likely future labour market” and made a recommendation to the ONS to make the Standard Occupation Classification (SOC) more relevant for stakeholders. At Founders4Schools (F4S), we have integrated information sources and AI technologies to make recommendations to educators so they can arrange student-employer encounters based on their preferred criteria in just minutes. This enables them to arrange over twenty different types of student-employer encounters, with our personalised guidance delivering tangible outcomes aimed to improve social mobility and help close the skills gap. This work builds upon research commissioned by our Partners including the Royal Society, CEC and the Education Endowment Foundation.

In our response to the Green Paper, Building our Industrial Strategy (2017), we supported the call for ‘Open Science’, by the release of API’s to key datasets. We see significant benefits in connecting the UK measurement strategy with the National Pupil’s Database (NPD) and are encouraged by the focus on unlocking data in the Digital Strategy. If the Department for Education allowed this via an API (that protects the identity of students) to the NPD we could prove the impact of our work at a fraction of the cost, help teachers and provide critical feedback to share with everyone about what works.

We also applaud the support provided by the Mayor of London to us in providing access to the machine-readable datasets via the London 2050 Mapping Application for infrastructure and would very much like to see the availability of such information up and down the country to assist further collaborations.

Work experience

We developed Workfinder to help students explore and find work experience placements in their local communities. The Founders4Schools (F4S) App is now being rolled out with thousands of start-ups, scale ups and large companies signed up including LinkedIn, Sage, Duedil, Zoopla and

By downloading a free service, young people can access fast growing businesses, including Scale-Ups and SMEs in their local community. They can view, shortlist and apply to companies that interest them using our proprietary recommendations. They will have personalised recommendations to guide them to 140 hours of work experience placements in a variety of businesses. It has historically been difficult to identify enough work experience opportunities for young people, but Workfinder makes this much easier through increasing and broadening the range of potential work experience opportunities. Local businesses love it because they have a personal connection and the opportunity to attract new talent.

Careers Advice

As highlighted in the Corsham Institute Thought Leadership report: ‘The role of the educator is changing and we need to support teaching staff to recognise the benefits of using digital technology both as a source of information and as a teaching aid…” At Founders4Schools (F4S), we are building on the work of the Royal Society, CBI and CEC to enable more online training for educators, so they can better equip themselves to advise their students on the career choices in front of them.

The Royal Society’s Vision 2020 report called on new, independent, expert bodies that draw on the wider STEM professional community to step up, and called for a sustained effort to give teachers time and resources to undertake subject-specific professional development. I am passionate about finding ways to help teachers develop their own understanding of careers and the changing needs of the post-education employment market to students, while developing their own digital skills.


We applaud the work of the CEC to train and equip enterprise advisors in 1,000 schools so that teachers are aware of the best-evidenced employability initiatives. We are pleased to have developed the Careers and Enterprise dashboard (available to see on our website) that reports on the progress being made in each Local Enterprise Partnership area. This means we can track student-employer encounters per 1,000 and celebrate the work being done, for example, by Camden Council in the London LEP who, with the drive of schools like The UCL Academy and Rhyl Primary School, have achieved 749 student employer encounters per 1,000 students. 

In conclusion, I welcome the launch of Observatory and the debates that will flow from these pages. There is a lot of great work being done, focused on some clear and pressing issues. Through ongoing collaborations and by the sharing of key information, I am certain that we will make a positive and tangible difference for future generations.

If you would like to offer work experience or workplace visits - our onboarding process takes less than 30 seconds at

If you’d like to encourage schools to turn to us for help contacting local businesses, please point them in our direction. It takes just a few minutes at


Founders4Schools is an Ed-Tech charity dedicated to improving the life chances of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds by connecting them to business leaders. Sherry Coutu CBE chairs both the ScaleUp Institute & Founders4Schools.