Margaret Gibson OBE, Scotland Hub Leader and Head of Social Enterprise Services at the EY Foundation, tells Rob Beswick about how she hopes to raise the aspirations of young people from disadvantaged communities
We all want to see Scotland become a economically successful, flourishing and equitable society, and Margaret Gibson OBE has her view on one way this can be achieved – by making the most of all the skills and talents available to it, at every age, and from every community.
Twenty years at the Prince’s Scottish Youth Business Trust (PSYBT) had opened Margaret’s eyes to the possibilities available if young people could only find the right guidance and financial support they needed to set up their own businesses, while three years at Women’s Enterprise Scotland had seen her break down more barriers to success as she helped female entrepreneurs establish their own businesses.
But while she found that role immensely rewarding, her work at PSYBT had made her realise her real passion lay in helping the country’s youth lift their horizons and take the opportunities that exist for them. So when EY – that’s Ernst & Young in old money, in case you’re wondering – offered her the chance to lead the EY Foundation in Scotland, a new initiative spun out from its CSR programme, she jumped at the chance.
“I loved working at PSYBT,” Margaret recalls. “It was great helping young people set up their own businesses. They have such a thirst for knowledge, ambition and an energy that’s exciting. The challenge is to make sure all those qualities, that passion, find an outlet in the workplace and that every young person finds the role they deserve.”
As Margaret explained, the EY Foundation works to offer opportunities to young people who may find few, if any, open to them after school or college. “The EY Foundation is a pioneering model that brings together the professional rigour and resources of a large corporate with the innovation and dynamism of a start-up charity. We look to inspire and support young people from more vulnerable backgrounds to fulfil their work potential.
“We work with employers and other key collaborators to reduce the barriers to work that exist and enhance their employability.”
Most of the Foundation’s ‘clients’ come from economically challenged backgrounds, Margaret said. “Too many young people from our most deprived estates leave school and college thinking there’s nothing for them,” she said. “They may come from an area where the majority of people used to work for a big employer – the shipyards, for example – but as they have closed or scaled back on manpower, those young people might live in a home where no one has worked for years. They have no positive work-related role models to look up to and they just assume that there will be no working life for them. But that’s wrong; they’ve got so much they can contribute. It’s up to us all to give them a chance.”
And that’s where Margaret and the EY Foundation comes in. Its focus at the moment is on those aged 16 – 19 who have a range of barriers to overcome when attempting to make the switch from statutory education to either further education, employment or self-employment. The message is clear: in a future, progressive Scotland, no-one can be left behind.
“The young people we work with in the Glasgow, Dunfermline, Fife and Edinburgh often don’t have access to networks and positive role models; they need help understanding the world of work and in gaining work experience but don’t have anyone to turn to to provide it. If the older people around you don’t work, how do you arrange work experience? How do you learn about the jobs that may be available to you?”
A specially designed training programme fills in some of those gaps, offering guidance and mentoring as well as practical help that will improve employability. “We work alongside other charities like PEEK, Achieve and More, and Radiant and Brighter – and others from a social services, schools – to identify young people who need that little bit more help before they can enter the workplace. Often they are academically bright but aren’t getting a chance to prove it.”
Through the EY Foundation programme volunteers – often from EY – deliver training on everything from writing CVs and interview technique, as well as advice on the work options available. There is also proper paid work experience – this could be at EY, or one of the other employers we partner with. They are paid a competitive wage while attending and come out three weeks later with a recognised Chartered Management Institute qualification in team leading. “The course is about giving the young people some real work experience and practical advice that they can build on, whichever career choice they follow,” added Margaret.
Indeed, it could be argued that the most valuable thing participants gain is something that’s virtually unmeasurable: confidence. “I was chatting to one programme leader and they highlighted how the young people change when they are with them. They arrive quite shy and hesitant. It’s rare they attend the programme with anyone they know, so they have to start to get to know other people, work out how to get along together. That’s how life is in the workplace but for the young people who pass through the EY Foundation, it’s often a new experience.”
One of the key benefits for Margaret is helping participants develop their emotional intelligence. “We teach practical skills on the course but attitude is so much more important. They learn how to act in the workplace, developing their confidence as they go. It’s inspiring to see the changes that come over them.”
At the heart of the strategy is giving everyone a chance to shine. “I’m often reminded of a quote – it’s not mine but I’ll happily use it – that ‘Talent is universal but opportunity is not.’ It’s so true and it’s something we must change so everyone gets a chance.”
But does Margaret feel that the EY Foundation is fulfilling a task that’s really the job of the education system? That’s a criticism of schools she feels is unfair. “It’s too easy to hit schools. Many of them are doing well – some parts of the new Curriculum for Excellence are really good. But to tackle this problem we need a communal approach: the schools, community groups, employers and programmes like those that the EY Foundation run. We all have a job to do to work with all our young people.”
One area where Margaret believes society as a whole is taking an encouraging turn is a growing understanding of the value of modern apprenticeship schemes. “Apprentices are definitely back and people are seeing their value,” she said. “We lost this. Not everyone is right for university or college.”
She highlights a member of her own family who took an apprenticeship after leaving school as it fitted better and has gone on to make his career a great success. His story should be used to make young people aware of the opportunities that exist for them after school - “we need our young people to sit down and listen to the stories of others who have made a success of their lives. But I’m not just talking about very successful business leaders… what’s wrong with an electrician or builder coming into school, explaining how he/she took the path that led to them learning a trade, and how they’ve made it a success?”
The EY Foundation is also tackling this issue from another direction in its work with social entrepreneurs. “We help social enterprise businesses develop and grow. We match them with volunteer mentors, who offer advice and support drawn from their own business experience.
“As part of the programme we run workshops in which social enterprise owners can deepen their knowledge on business issues. We run courses on business strategy, on branding, better governance and how to work with trustees.”
This programme fits well with the EY Foundation’s other work, as social enterprises are often the types of business more likely to offer a job opportunity to a young person struggling to break into the workplace elsewhere.
So far, EY Foundation is making great strides – having supported over 1,000 young people across the UK this year but there’s more work needed, and that’s where IoD members can help. “I’d love to be able to work with more employers in Scotland, “ she said, “and we can do it in a number of ways.
“We can run a course tailored to your employment needs, where young people are given an insight into your business. This could give you a chance to tap into a pool of labour your traditional recruitment drives miss. Alternatively, we’re always looking for employers to open their doors to us so we can showcase post-16 possibilities to our young people, explain what different jobs entail and have employees explain their stories. We have had the owner of a distribution business come to talk about his business, a clothing manufacturer explaining the various roles involved and a digital design agency demonstrating the skills required in this sector.
“Another option is for directors to volunteer a couple of hours of their time to go into schools directly. We run half-day workshops in which we take young people through different careers and you can help explain what is needed to get into those roles.”
But above all, her plea is for employers not to dismiss applicants because they don’t come from their traditional recruitment zones.
“What’s needed is for employers to recognise that all young people deserve a chance. Our employability courses make young people more ‘job ready’, and prepare employers to host those young people in their business.
“Do you know what’s really sad: many young people don’t apply for jobs because they think they won’t be wanted and have no chance. They lack confidence in their ability. We’re trying to change that at the EY Foundation.”