I used to a keep a copy of W.B. Yeats’ poem ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ on my office wall. It ends with the line ‘tread softly because you tread on my dreams’. I once diplomatically suggested to a student predicted DDE at A-Level that she could think about taking a gap year to re-sit some modules and get some more work experience if she was thinking about applying for Medicine. I told her about a friend who had done that and as we spoke was delivering babies who were classed as high risk. The student went and told everyone that they shouldn’t bother seeing Ms Scott as she would just stomp on your dreams.
People often like to tell me about their bizarre experiences of receiving careers advice. A colleague told me that if the careers advisor thought you’d get married, they’d tell you to become a bilingual secretary. If they thought you wouldn’t get married, they’d suggest you become a librarian so you could support yourself. A relative told me her careers advisor was very emphatic about her doing something in the coal industry. People sometimes corner me at parties, expressing their resentment that the computer programme at school told them to be a fence erecter/carpet fitter/undertaker.
I too was disappointed with the careers guidance I got at school. The leaflet in the careers library told me that there was typically only one vacancy per year in journalism in Northern Ireland. In retrospect, I’m not terribly impressed that a bright, hard working teenager felt so bleak about their career prospects. I wanted to live in a world of plenty, where there were lots of possibilities. I wanted someone to tell me all the things I could do. The grumpy History teacher could tell you what A-Levels you needed for Medicine or the grades you needed for the Law course at Queens. But what else was there? It seemed everyone in my year wanted to be a primary school teacher. I did not.
I felt I was searching for something, options, a sense of direction. My parents and their friends weren’t much use. One of them told me I should just get married and not bother with an education. I was horrified. My dad’s friend told me languages were mediocre and translation was basic work. (Of course he barely even had a GCSE in French to his name.) My dad seemed to feel that every single career in existence was morally bankrupt and proceeded to rant about evil capitalist bastards. I was stumped.
It is ludicrous that we expect young people to make career decisions without any experience of the world of work and little more than a rudimentary exposure to a range of traditional job titles like doctor, teacher and vicar. Can we really expect young people to be like Martin in The Simpsons who knows he wants to be a systems analyst at age 10? He can be seen hoping that the results of the school’s career aptitude test will say systems analyst.
The answer to a lack of career direction has long been presented as choosing STEM subjects. This rhetoric rarely bothers to engage with the idea that some people are bored stiff by maths and science and/or aren’t very good at them either. Or perhaps they do, but just sweep it away by pointing out that the Chinese make everyone good at STEM subjects. People suggest that we should expose children to careers information at younger and younger ages, to get them to choose ‘useful’ subjects, therefore framing arts and humanities subjects as ‘poor choices’ and leaving some bright young people who have lots of potential feeling as if they are doomed. Well done.
I think some provision of information might help. We can talk until the cows come home about the labour market, the depressing statistics but none of this actually helps young people. Neither does telling them they have to choose something they hate and find boring or they’ll be broke. There are lots of things you could do but they are unlikely to present themselves them to you – you need to be proactive and seek things out. I suppose I see it in a quite a simple way: study something you enjoy, go and see the Careers Service in your first year, attend events and talk to people and get some work experience. You can go into (almost) anything if you understand the skills & experience you need and then make sure you get them. Some may be related to your degree, some not so related. We’ll help you figure that out!
It doesn’t really make sense to view the world of work through the lens of academic subjects, as if it’s a linear journey from GCSE to A-Level to degree to job and if your journey doesn’t end in a job, that’s somehow your fault rather than the fault of the adults who muddied the waters and pretend that subjects are equivalent to jobs. French is not a job. English Literature is not a job. However the real point is that doesn’t matter. People tend to think of choosing subjects as heading into a funnel shaped cul-de-sac. Think of it instead as an hourglass. You narrowed your subject choice and academic interests and now the hourglass needs to open back up into the world of work.
Education seems to be a funny mixture of chasing prestige and learning facts to gain approval in the hope that regurgitating them will lead to a job one day. I suppose this raises the whole point of education. I think we know it’s really to churn out high achieving children with posh hobbies and impressive sounding professional jobs who’ll hopefully be able to fund their house deposits and weddings, leaving their parents with a nice chunk of money for conservatories and luxury cruises.
I dipped into Alison Wolf’s book – Education: Does It Matter? For centuries, the British government has tried to capitalise on the idea that vocational education could produce a steady flow of useful employees for industries which would boost the economy. Yet somehow they haven’t quite got it right. Our education system is based on the relics of one designed to meet the needs of the Victorian labour market, built around a calendar when children needed time off to help with the harvest.
Some people (fine, usually Guardian columnists) hold that children should be taught good, pure academic subjects and that any form of vocational education that teaches useful things equates to drones being prepared for the workforce and will lead to a complete devaluing of knowledge and the eradication of art and culture. I might suggest a blend of academic knowledge with vocational education and some art and culture too. The liberal education model seeks to foster open minded, thinking individuals who question the world around them and tackle social injustice. I wasn’t aware of this. I thought I was cramming fairly pointless facts into my brain to regurgitate again to get a good mark in an exam. Hmmm….
But I feel all of this is missing the point. We are so stuck on educational qualifications and quantifiable markers of success. And the point of these grades? To get you into university. Going to university is not a passive transformative process like going to the hairdressers, where you sit there and are turned into something. We become obsessed with university rankings. Schools are obsessed with them because parents believe that if their children get into an impressive sounding university, they will be protected against our unpredictable job market where jobs for life with final salary pensions no longer exist and there is a horrible disconnect between salaries and house prices.
Even if you’ve gone to a very good university, you’re still only going to be about 21 when you graduate with relatively little life or work experience. You may have spent three years buried in rather obscure academic study. There are enormous differences between the world of work and education. We tell young people that doing well in education means you will get a good professional job. Well, yes, but it’s not quite that neat and simple. You won’t just get a job because you write ‘Warwick’ or ‘Bristol’ on your application form. What do you know about the company? Why do you want to work for them? Can you demonstrate that you have communication skills, can work in a team and can solve problems effectively? These are some quite generic things (which employers do look for) but the students I work with often need coaching and encouragement to be able to talk fluently and convincingly about the skills they have. Students are also oddly lacking in confidence and dismissive of the things they’ve done – ‘I’ve only been volunteering in a museum for three months’ or ‘I only worked my way up to assistant manager in a busy cafe over three summers’. They often think that something else must be needed, that everyone else has done something more impressive, but are unable to tell you what they think it is that everyone else has done.
People often get stuck on what they can do with their subject, as if they are waiting for a magic list of jobs to be revealed that will give them the direction they are looking for. Something that is perfect for them and they can just go straight into, immediately, with their degree. Most careers generally require some element of work experience, some investment. I think this annoys people. It’s perhaps a matter of time and timescale. It’s not unreasonable to want to have something lined up for post-graduation. Some say they are too busy getting their degree done and working to think about life post-graduation. Work of course provides some very valuable skills and experience, even if they don’t think so.
Doing a Masters does not solve anything. I tend to view it as life avoidance. I get that lots of people do genuinely want to study more about their chosen subject or it may lead to a specific career but people often hope that avoiding the issue at hand (by travelling or doing a Masters), things will somehow sort themselves out. Others know what they want to do, often expressing ideas that they feel left behind and that all their peers know exactly what they are doing.
By and large, we do find that if people gain the right skills and experience, and perhaps use the careers service, they can get into their chosen sector. That said, there is a huge level of social and geographical division. Many sectors are very difficult to get into unless you can afford to do unpaid or poorly paid internships in London. A friend worked six days a week on an unpaid summer internship with a fashion designer whose photograph I sometimes see on the parties page of the Evening Standard magazine on a Friday.
There is certainly a world of extremely sought after yet poorly paid jobs. People are queuing up to work in fashion and publishing even though the roles are poorly paid or unpaid. I remember seeing a job advert for a senior researcher (PhD desired) with a very well known prestigious think tank. The salary was less than a newly qualified teacher’s, less than what I started on as a careers advisor for an inner city sixth form college. I was shocked.
I never really had a dream, a passion, a drive. But lots of people do have tremendous energy and fire in their bellies. They’ve found their passion and they want to make it their job, even if it will be difficult and they don’t earn a huge amount. I took the point of view that nothing could be fulfilling enough to compensate for scraping to the pay the rent and not being able to afford to go on holiday or out for dinner.
In 2018 Amalia Illgner took legal action against her former employer for unpaid wages. Monocle magazine, where she interned paid her £30 day, almost half of minimum wage. She wrote a piece which featured on the cover, having spent 20 hours of her own time to research and write it. Of the experience, she said, ‘Working that Saturday afternoon for free to help a $47m publishing company make its deadlines, I became convinced that something had to be done.’ She outlines in quite some detail the barriers that exist to getting into a number of sectors including politics, the arts and journalism and the astonishing lack of political will to ensure that interns are actually paid. You can read the article here.
I think about my dad’s attempts to dispense careers guidance and his angry lefty rants about soulless corporate bastards. I don’t know how useful it was to peddle his views to a teenager through the lens of his midlife crisis. He spent ten years importing oil paintings from Hong Kong which he didn’t especially enjoy but did because it convenient. The bills were paid and he had time for family and temple commitments. His business floundered and he decided he needed to do something to do something socially useful. He seemed to think almost every career under the sun was ethically compromising.
We talk about this quite a lot. I tell him I think his attitude was unrealistic given the state of the world, the economy and the cost of houses. I also wasn’t terribly interested in most of the jobs that involved helping people. I was horrified by the idea of having to deal with bodily fluids, deal with the vulnerable or the smelly or having to be patient with people. I was a sarcastic teenager, irritated when people didn’t get the nuance or metaphor in what I was saying, or indeed my sarcasm. (I often talk to students who want to do something positive and make a difference that doesn’t involve dealing with the vulnerable or the smelly. There are jobs but many of them are difficult to get into: charities, think tanks and international development.)
I’m not sure how well suited I was to teaching. I re-branded myself out of perceived necessity because I didn’t know what else to do. Aren’t young women meant to be warm and caring and patient and love children and young people and just care about them so much? I managed it for a while. I like my job now and I feel it’s a good fit. I just regret the lost years of my early twenties when I had no idea what I was doing, slightly exhausted by my mother’s demands that I was super religious and my dad’s insistence that I find something sensible and well paid that fit into his very narrow conception of what was ethical.
I regret that I wasn’t happier at work in the second half of my twenties. I felt stuck in my last job, packing teenagers off to university when they clearly weren’t ready, because that was what the school wanted and there didn’t seem to be much else for them to do. (I might need another post to cover the inadequacies of apprenticeship provision.) I wasn’t sure what the point was of an underpaid job that slightly drove me up the wall and pricked at my conscious. Some sort of murky pretence that it was a good idea to smooth over the fact that these kids weren’t prepared for university and send them off to clock up of tens of thousands of pounds of debt in the name of social mobility. If I had worked for British American Tobacco, I might have been driven up the wall and had tremendous ethical qualms about my work, but at least I would have been well paid and we all would have been very clear that it was evil.
And now I work at the coalface, where I wanted to be – helping students navigate the transition from education to the world of work. My role is many things, somewhere between a teacher, a counsellor and event planner with some occasional wrangling of Excel spreadsheets. I offer encouragement and a non-judgemental listening ear, supporting students, equipping them with confidence, sometimes trying to calm them down. I hear what you’re saying and I believe that you can. At times, I feel they are trying to convince me that everything will not be ok. They come in search of reassurance yet seem to want to throw it back in my face, tell me I’m wrong. How are these the messages young people are picking up?
A colleague conducted a focus group with some students who hadn’t ever used the service. They seemed to fully expect to be unemployed when they graduated. I went home and felt despondent and ate a whole punnet of grapes before spending the rest of the evening chain drinking cups of tea. Engaging with students is an on-going challenge. They don’t know what to do and because they don’t know what they don’t know, they assume we can’t do anything for them. Or perhaps they think we’ll try and talk them out of their dreams into boring 9-5 jobs.
We also need transparency and honest information. Not just the rather broad (read vague) information written by marketing teams in prospectuses about what you can do with a degree. There needs to be an understanding of the pro-activity needed to succeed and how we can support that; what to realistically expect, meaningful case studies, contact with alumni, actually attending some of events we hold.
There are opportunities out there. We advertise a very wide range of them and only under certain circumstances do we advertise unpaid opportunities. We also work with external organisations who provide opportunities to get into ‘difficult’ sectors. We provide support with volunteering and part-time jobs. We offer placements, micro-internships and placement years for some programmes.
But please, come and talk to us in your first year. We are listening and we believe you can.
Illgner, A. (2018) Why I’m Suing Over My Dream Internship. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/27/why-im-suing-over-my-dream-internship
Wolf, A. (2002) Does Education Matter? Myths about education and economic growth. London: Penguin.