Everyone's Business

22nd February 2019

Is university necessarily the best route for all? Claire Moulds asks how we can better prepare young people for engaging and fulfilling careers…

While much has changed in the education arena since I was at school, one thing has steadfastly remained the same – and that is the shortage of careers guidance and support provided to students.
I vividly remember that when I was in the sixth form I completed a huge online careers questionnaire, the results of which were supposed to point me in the direction of potential careers that matched with my interests and abilities – only for it to print out hundreds and hundreds of diverse occupations that just served to confuse me more. Meanwhile, a rare meeting with the careers officer revolved around what I thought I should do, rather than her offering me any insight or guidance into further education or the world of work.

Twenty years later and there’s still plenty of room for improvement in understanding that educating children is only part of the equation when it comes to laying the foundations of choosing and pursuing a successful and satisfying career. A recent survey revealed that only 43% of school leavers received information and guidance from a careers adviser at their school or college, while 50% of respondents said they needed more advice than they received on the options available to them.

Worse still, as a nation, we have seemingly become fixated on the idea that a university education is the most desirable route into the jobs market for all students, regardless of their academic ability, their suitability for such a programme of study or the career they wish to pursue. It has almost become a ‘rite of passage’ into adulthood and a ‘lifestyle choice,’ rather than a commitment to the pursuit of knowledge and research that it was originally intended to be.

At a time when a degree requires such a huge financial investment I think we all have a duty to guide the young adults around us to make the right choice for them. The influence wielded by parents and teachers is substantial – the same survey also revealed that one in 20 students intended to complete a UCAS form only because they had been ‘told to’ – and it’s therefore important that other adults in a young person’s life raise awareness of less high profile options, such as apprenticeships or joining a company’s training programme directly from school.

After all, while they may be young adults, we cannot expect school pupils to know the ins and outs of a world they have never been a part of or been exposed to – be it further education or employment – and it’s therefore up to us to be a ‘bridge’, offering them vital insight into where different paths could lead and how it feels to walk them.

One worrying trend that urgently needs offsetting is the all-powerful influence of social media, which is shaping children’s career aspirations and expectations from an alarmingly young age. A recent survey of six to 17 year olds found that 34% wanted to be a YouTube personality rather than pursuing more traditional – and arguably more realistic – careers such as being a nurse, doctor, teacher or lawyer.

Sadly, many educational institutions are fuelling this lack of realism; Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman recently called colleges out for course adverts listing ‘unlikely’ potential jobs post-study, giving students in the arts and media ‘false hope’ that they will go on to secure glamorous careers in these fields. Spielman was particularly concerned that colleges might be prioritising the financial imperative of headcount in the classroom ahead of the best interests of the young people in their care.

One way we can counter such unrealistic expectations, while helping students to find the right career path, is to ensure that they have access to work experience from an early age. From my own experience as a graduate mentor to final year university students, and as an employer, I know that one of the most valuable things on your CV is a list of relevant work placements. Work experience is how I identified the profession I wanted to pursue (far removed from the industry I always assumed that I would work in) and meant that when I met a potential employer I could talk them through exactly how I had come to the decision that the job was right for me. I could also demonstrate transferrable, industry-specific skills that I had gained during my placements – which enabled me to show that I could hit the ground running, unlike other candidates who may never have set foot in that type of company.

When I mentor students, work experience is always top of my list of things to discuss with them and something that I encourage and help to organise, when I can, as it quickly shows a young person whether a particular career is everything they thought it would be and whether they have the right skillset to pursue it. Unfortunately, not all students have access to a network of family, friends and advocates that they can draw on to secure such placements and it’s therefore important that local employers promote such opportunities, when they are available, to a wider audience.

Also of concern to many companies, and the Government, is the drastic decline in the number of youngsters taking holiday jobs, falling from 42% in 1997 to just 18% in 2014, with former Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey stating earlier this year that working over the summer should ‘complement’ a person’s education, allowing individuals to develop their customer service and problem-solving skills, build their resilience and attitude to work, improve their time management and work on their ability to juggle different priorities. In essence, it’s about making them more employable in the future.

It is these complementary skills that are sadly often lacking when a young person leaves education, with survey after survey revealing that universities aren’t producing graduates who are ‘work ready’, leaving employers wondering how to fill their roles and former students wondering what they paid £9,000 a year for! The Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) found that an alarming one in four graduates does not possess the skills required at the point of hiring, with teamwork and problem-solving a particular issue, and went on to recommend that secondary school should be the place where these soft skills are cultivated, before young people go on to university or into employment.

Certainly there’s a clear need for employers, schools, universities and other training providers to come together to ensure that students have enough exposure to industry before making any big decisions about further study – to avoid young people ending up on the wrong course and, ultimately, with a qualification that they aren’t sure how to use; and so that education providers fully understand what employers are looking for in newly qualified employees and how they can incorporate this into their curriculum.

Ultimately, choosing a career is one of the biggest decisions anyone will ever make in life. Having to make important and potentially difficult choices, including which subjects to study, at such a young age, is just one example of how a decision made now can have huge ramifications going forward, especially for someone unsure of what path to take.

One option to give students the breathing space to really focus on finding out who they are, what’s important to them and to think about the future that they want to create for themselves, would be to introduce a ‘transition year’, which is a popular approach in Ireland.

Taken prior to starting our equivalent of A-levels, the transition year consists of core subjects, such as English and Mathematics, but also enables students to pursue other opportunities to help them to explore their strengths and interests and identify career paths that they may be interested in. For example, students may undertake work experience; they may try tasters in subjects such as engineering, or take the opportunity to do a foreign exchange trip; they can visit open days and exhibitions to learn about different careers, and have guest speakers come into school to talk about their different experiences. It’s also a chance to participate in charity/community projects, or learn something useful, such as first aid.

Emphasis is placed throughout the year on developing key personal attributes that will stand students in good stead in future years, including communication skills and how to work successfully as a group, as well as practical skills that turn the theory learned in the classroom into real world tasks, such as running their own mini business.

With Brexit looming – presenting both opportunities and threats – it’s vital now, more than ever, that the next generation not only has the best education possible but also the best careers guidance and support to go with it, to ensure that every child fulfils their potential…

Find Your Local