We should bring back National Service to save UK businesses

Juliet Barratt, co-founder of sports performance and energy brand Grenade, argues the case for a (non-military) UK wide National Service. Do you agree?

My husband Alan and I launched our business Grenade in 2010 with just £27 in our business bank account. Today, we’re ranked as one of the UK’s fastest growing businesses.

Of the many things that you need to achieve business growth like this, a dedicated and talented workforce is right up there.

However, research continues to highlight a talent gap in Britain – research from Deloitte estimates that 36% of non-British workers are thinking about leaving the UK by 2022, and 26% plan to make the move even sooner. For many high-growth UK businesses that rely on top talent, this has potentially very serious implications.

Almost every day we hear reports about how the UK is currently living in a huge period of uncertainty. We can easily anticipate how many sectors will eventually lose out once European workers – who make up a significant proportion of the UK workforce – vanish.

But, when searching for the solution to this dilemma, it is clear that the focus is heavily weighted towards enticing foreign workers to stay, or creating an immigration policy for highly skilled workers. This avoids the glaring issue at hand, which is that our education system isn’t able to provide the modern workforce that we are in dire need of.

The long-term answer to finding talent lies in putting greater emphasis on investing in our young people

However, fixing our outdated education system certainly won’t be easy. After all, I should know…

I started my career in education, and taught in rural and urban schools and colleges for a number of years. I like to think that I have a good understanding of the ways in which young people learn, and I’ve always been very passionate about encouraging them to do well educationally, as well as professionally.

Making learning appealing to kids and teenagers isn’t a simple task and, speaking from personal experience, it’s very easy for teachers to lose the initial passion that brought them into their teaching career. When it comes to teaching, this is especially true when you consider the cliché that a lot of kids often now know more than their IT teacher!

This isn’t even a new thing –when I was teaching I always struggled with the idea that a 60-year-old teacher who was only used to working in education (an achievement in itself) was ever going to capture the attention and enthusiasm of young people.

London’s tech hub, Silicon Roundabout, with its ping pong tables and collaborative hackathons is a far cry from learning how to use Microsoft Word in a dingy classroom.

The other side of the coin – university – is no better. I believe university has become a social rite of passage rather than time spent to dedicated learning on a chosen career.

But I’m not here just to moan about the education system; being an entrepreneur is about coming up with solutions so here is mine…

As it stands, schools aren’t inspiring kids into choosing a career path and, for the most part, university is unrelated to what most students’ end up doing. Indeed, many students come out of university in a state of limbo, still very unprepared for the world of work and unclear about what job they want to do.

As such, I suggest we bring back National Service

Not the military kind, but a nationwide scheme where young people complete paid work experience programmes with UK businesses for one year before going to university.

It would go beyond two weeks’ work experience by giving them a proper taste of working life before deciding on what sort of degree or qualifications they pursue.

As well as helping students become more equipped for the world of work post-education, the wages earned would be able to go towards a university tuition – perhaps with the government matching whatever is earned – which also helps to alleviate a few woes around tuition fees.

At Grenade, we are already making strong links with local education providers and universities. We work closely with universities like Coventry and Warwick. We’re starting to offer work experience and internships and we actively recruit from local universities as well.

The positive impact this has on students is palpable, and would work really well on a bigger scale. The difference in experience, knowledge and preparation for the world of work, compared with the traditional university intakes, has been fantastic.

An additional benefit that we’ve noticed is that schemes like this allow businesses to learn more about what they need to do to in order to attract young people and look after them.

It’s early days, but it’s clear that we need to move quickly to revolutionise the way we inspire young people as they enter the world of work.

Once this happens – and we have a National Service-type programme to help the UK’s youth thrive – their potential will be fully realised and the economy will have the chance to flourish in the wake of Brexit.

Co-founder of high-growth sports performance and energy brand Grenade, Juliet Barratt wrote this article after speaking on stage at Memery Crystal’s #thinkseries event which took place on October 12.