WERE you “work-ready” when you left school? Did you hit the ground running in your career of choice, or did it take you a while to find your niche, build up skills and confidence, and figure out what you really wanted to do?

If you went on to college or university – the route chosen by two-thirds of school-leavers in 2017 – you’ll have bought yourself a bit more time. Were you a “work-ready” diamond by the time you left, or still in need of a bit of polishing?

Whenever the issue of youth employment is raised, you can guarantee two arguments will be put forward: employers will claim those leaving education lack the skills their businesses need, and people who aren’t teachers will argue that schools ought to be doing more to align teaching to the current and future needs of industry.

But what if they’ve got it all the wrong way around?

Maybe businesses should be investing in training young people who demonstrate problem-solving skills, initiative and enthusiasm for learning. Maybe schools should be aiming to produce well-rounded, thoughtful and adaptable young people, rather than steering them down narrow paths of vocational learning at the first indication they won’t be heading to university. Why, when those with degrees can apply for graduate training schemes, are those without them expected to either accept paltry wages as an apprentice, or commit to an occupation when barely into their teens or slot seamlessly into a workplace?

Clearly, schools must adapt to changing times – few would disagree that in 2018, coding classes should be prioritised over sewing lessons. But how far into the future should educators be peering, given the world of work is changing so rapidly? For the time being we still require people to drive vehicles, prepare food in restaurant kitchens and man reception desks, but for how much longer will these roles be carried out by human beings?

Five years ago two Oxford University academics ranked more than 700 jobs in order of their “probability of computerisation”, and the 100 most at risk included office clerks, bookkeepers, manicurists, pedicurists and dental laboratory technicians. The idea of a robot getting in among your teeth or toenails might sound like the stuff of science-fiction nightmares... but not so long ago it seemed we’d always have a need for supermarket cashiers.

The Scottish Government has this week published its third annual report on the nation’s youth employment strategy, Developing the Young Workforce, and on the whole it makes for positive reading. The target of reducing youth unemployment by 40 per cent by 2021 has been met four years early, more college courses have been made available in schools, and more school-leavers are obtaining vocational qualifications at level five of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework.

Career education is being expanded so that pupils can start learning about the world of work in primary five, then receive one-to-one advice when they are choosing exam subjects, and employers have been working in partnership with local education authorities to provide work placements and “work inspiration activities” such as talks in schools.

All of which sounds like good progress, albeit the government admits the drop in youth unemployment may be due to “wider economic and social factors” rather than any of these measures. Also, as Labour were keen to highlight during a debate in the Scottish Parliament yesterday, the devil is in the detail when it comes to employment figures. How many young people are underemployed on zero-hours contracts, and should such jobs really be considered “positive destinations”?

Then there are apprenticeships. Politicians like talking about apprenticeships, and companies like boasting about offering them. Yesterday the Scottish Government announced a target of delivering 28,000 new Modern Apprenticeship opportunities next year, as well as increasing funding for rural areas and key sectors.

But not everyone is convinced by trumpeting about targets. In response to the UK Government setting a goal of three million apprentice starts by 2020, Westminster’s Sub-Committee on Education, Skills and the Economy warned “apprenticeship starts are the means to an end, not an end in themselves”, and called for success to be measured in terms of programme completion, progression to higher levels and whether apprentices secure related employment. After all, if such a programme doesn’t help the apprentice land a job – whether with the same firm or another in the same sector – then it could be seen as an opportunity for cynical employers to pay bright and able recruits just £3.50 an hour – more than £2 less than the national minimum wage for a non-apprentice 18-year-old.

And while firms know best what skills they require in 2018, anyone entering the modern workforce should be prepared to keep training and retraining as technology advances and the demands of the economy change. Workers aren’t expected to take a pay cut while they get to grips with a new workflow, computer system or piece of machinery, so for how long should young recruits – who may bring fresh skills of their own to a team – be expected to work for pin money?

Apprenticeships can bridge the gap between a broad-based school education and a specialist professional career. But if they are to meet the needs of young people – both now and in the future – quality, not just quantity, is key.