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Why small business owners should be building relationships with local schools

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There are numerous reasons why small business owners should be building relationships with their local schools. So why aren’t more of them doing it? Peter Crush investigates

When was the last time you went to school? No, not as a student yourself, but in your capacity as a small business owner – to inspire and captivate young minds?

If outreach levels are anything like what they were in 2015, when FSB carried out its education and skills survey, the answer is likely to be “not recently”. In the survey responses, just 14 per cent of small firms said they were currently engaged with their local school or college, with a further 6 per cent saying they were not involved at present but had been in the past year. That leaves a massive 80 per cent that have not engaged with schools or colleges at all.

Evidence that forming these partnerships should be on the agenda of small businesses was re-stated earlier this year, when a report for FSB in Scotland – School Ties: Transforming Small Business Engagement with Schools (conducted by Rocket Science) – found that not only are small businesses “vital partners in helping young people make a successful transition to work”, but in doing so they generate a positive societal benefit, too. The report referred to research findings that pupils who have encountered four or more employers in their school lives reduced their likelihood of later not being in employment, education or training by 20 per cent.

Interacting with pupils in their local school and colleges can also help to challenge any preconceptions that business owners may have about young people too, by helping them to get to know the next generation and understand what is important to them. The education and skills survey, meanwhile, found that 66 per cent of small business owners agreed such initiatives would have a positive effect on their perceptions of the skills and aspirations of young people.

Small business owners might want to build links with schools and colleges for other reasons, too. Not only are many employers concerned that young people are not as work-ready as they once were – something that guest talks in the classroom could help alleviate – but with more young people opting for apprenticeships rather than degree education, local businesses could increasingly be where youngsters look for work.

Over half (57 per cent) of respondents to the 2015 survey agreed that building closer ties would enable them to offer employment and work experience opportunities. In addition, a recent FSB report on apprenticeships – Make or Break: Getting Apprenticeship Reform Right for Small Businesses – found that one-quarter of small businesses have been approached by a school or college to take part in apprenticeship activities.

“Small firms have an important role in changing young people’s perceptions of working in a small business, but also in supporting them to develop the skills employers want,” says Martin McTague, Policy Director at FSB. “Those that have never considered working with their local schools really should.”

Information gap

The good news is that it’s not that they don’t want to get involved. The education and skills survey found 60 per cent of firms would like their staff to get involved in such initiatives, while the School Ties report found more than one-third of FSB Scotland members said they would get more involved if there was better information available.

The key concern, however, was found to be the one pressure all small business owners seem to face when considering anything outside their normal activities: time. “This is the one issue members mention most, as is understanding what schools’ needs are,” says Mr McTague. “However, this is very much the initial hurdle. As soon as you’ve done it once, it does become easier.”

According to Mr McTague, more businesses simply need to understand the benefit that working with a local school can bring – and it’s this simple message that Gillian MacEwan, Founder of Scotland-based Dunkeld Nurseries, says she wants to spread. “My own children went to our local school, and it was through this that I got to know the head teacher,” she recalls, of a relationship than first began almost six years ago. “I was asked by the school if I could help out with four boys who had real potential. The plan was to take them for a day a week for a term, but the placement was so successful it lasted for two years.”

Since then, Ms MacEwan has deepened her relationship, by running other outreach programmes, including helping with the school’s gardening club, creating a new garden, and showing children how to trim trees. A child she mentored some time ago for two years has now gone to university; which Ms MacEwan says “is something he would not have been able to do without the confidence that being mentored gave him”.

For this small business owner, giving back something to her community is the overwhelming motivation, and she believes this has to be the mindset for all firms when partnering with any school. “You’ve got to do it because you want to, and get a sense of satisfaction from helping out in its own right,” she says. “If young people see you as a great place to work in the future, that’s a bonus, but it shouldn’t be your single motivation – otherwise you’ll be disappointed.”

Altruism, she argues, is an unwritten role small business owners need to have, because only they can really educate young people what working for a smaller organisation is all about. “I remember going to a breakfast briefing on youth employment,” she recalls. “It was all about large companies such as Scottish Power or Aviva. If there’s any ulterior motive for me, it’s that I help make kids passionate about entrepreneurship and the opportunities a small business can give.”

Local recognition

There can be other benefits, too, particularly in improving a firm’s reputation locally. The education and skills survey found 59 per cent of people thought getting involved with local schools and colleges would give the firm positive publicity – which has certainly been the case with Swansea-based property development company and FSB member Hygrove Homes.

The business runs several local projects including its Community Engagement Programme, which gives local school-age rugby players a taste of the construction industry by showing them around, as well as working with Pentrehafod and Cefn Hengoed schools to offer construction students hands-on experience so they can develop their skills and help them into a career in the industry.

The initiatives have recently seen it scoop the inaugural Frances Kemp Community Award from Small Business Saturday – a grassroots campaign that promotes small businesses working in their local communities – which it hopes will also filter through into local people wanting to work for the business in future. “In our area, we’re competing with three major housebuilding companies,” says Ben Francis, Hygrove’s Commercial Director. “We felt we wanted to be part of the local community, but a lot of the activity we do is also grounded in making sure we have more young people coming through into our industry.

“While it’s too soon for any of these kids (year 11) to turn into potential hires, that’s a definite aim,” he adds. “We’re offering people the potential to do work experience – we hope this will turn into full-time employment.”

Overcoming concerns

According to the FSB in Scotland report, one of the main concerns expressed by small firms – as well as time – was health and safety fears, including getting insurance to have young people at their business. But Mr Francis has proved that this is not the problem many believe it to be. He has even had disabled children on-site.

In any case, guidance is available for companies with these worries, says Mr McTague. “There is actually lots of third-party support that firms can access, including Young Enterprise, The Careers and Enterprise Company and Inspiring the Future. It’s often the case that schools can talk in a different language, and it can be difficult for firms to know how they can get involved, who to talk to and how they can best contribute,” he says.

“These intermediaries are well placed to do a lot of this hard work for them. They build strong relationships with schools and can manage the activity with both the school and the business.”

The message here is clear: those firms that decide to go back to the playground could find the experience is much more worthwhile than they first thought, from reputational, talent-building and altruistic points of view. These are lessons that small business owners who get involved will very quickly learn.

It's a win-win

At York-based digital marketing business Agency 51, Director Paul Gibson says he’s been involved with local schools for the past three years, even though the rest of the business community around him have had reservations.

“A lot of other local business owners I talk to don’t want to get involved,” he says. “But we’ve been holding apprenticeship days with schools, and run visits for kids aged 14 years and over to get them to think about a career in digital.”

Agency 51 first hooked up with local schools after it was approached by the council-run ‘Make it York’ initiative, which aims to showcase local firms to potential employees. “Today one of our account managers has liaising with schools as part of their job,” says Mr Gibson. “Since we started we’ve expanded to include running coding clubs that involve local schoolkids for two days a month.”

He’s even hired Will, whom the firm first met as a schoolchild when he was 15. “If we wanted to hire someone immediately, we’d have to pay a recruitment firm 20 per cent of any starting salary,” he says. “It’s a win-win for us.

“We feel we’ve given something back, but we’ve also got a great employee, and we’re better known locally. There’s no real reason we wouldn’t want to do this.”

Listening exercise

Videoconferencing firm Fuze has a different take on partnering with schools – one that it argues definitely adds value to the business.

In October the company ran its first ‘Change Agents’ event, where it invited 15-year-olds from the local comprehensive to come in, scrutinise what they saw and report back their findings. The aim is to seek the views from the next generation of workers, so the firm can offer the sort of surroundings and technology that appeal to ‘Generation Z’.

“This isn’t about what youngsters can learn from us; this day is all about we can learn from them,” says Director Tom Pressley. “Comments from kids included ‘why do other companies still use landlines?’ and ‘can we bring our own iPads into work?’ You can sometimes forget that workplaces today look quite alien to the next generation of workers.”

Peter Crush is a freelance Business Journalist