Careers guidance is pushing students down a narrow path before they have chance to explore their options

Emma Rosen
Young people are less aware of the wide range of jobs available to them after they leave education. - PA Wire

After leaving university, I was fortunate enough to know exactly what I wanted to do. I also had a job offer to boot.

However, after merely a year, I chose to leave my four-year graduate scheme.

I have now launched my own project. Over the course of a year, I am going to try 25 jobs before I turn 25.

What happened in between?

Once I entered my chosen career path, I quickly realised that whilst I had the skills to do my job, the careers guidance I had been given had not adequately prepared me for what that career was actually like.

Just as importantly, it had not helped me understand what it was that I wanted to do.

My new project - 25before25 - aims answer this question.

I will be performing short term work experience in 25 different industries. I will be trying everything from writing with The Telegraph to labouring on a Cornish alpaca farm; from excavating a Roman palace to photographing weddings; from working in property to carrying out marine conservation in Wales.  

Throughout my stages of education, my careers advisors tended to focus on figuring out what my core strengths and weaknesses were.  This would then determine what the most sensible next step should be (or so in theory).

There were a lot of multiple choice tests. I was expected to follow routes that corresponded to my grades and perceived competence.

Nowhere along the way, however, did anyone tell me that I might consider what sort of working environment I would be best suited to, what I wanted to get out of my job, and ultimately what might make me happiest in the workplace.

I am therefore taking a more methodical approach to hunting for the perfect career by considering different aspects that I want from a job. These categories include problem solving, making a difference, creativity and level of non-desk based work. I have also thought about the minimal salary I would be happy to earn.

Considering the working environment is equally as important. 

Aerial View of the City Of London - Credit: Alamy

I have learnt how crucial it is to get on well with your colleagues. I have discovered that I prefer working in a small organisation rather than a large one. I also want as short a commute as possible.

This approach makes it easier to make decisions: it helps to frame your thinking process in terms of the elements you think will make you happiest in the workplace.

This may seem like the epitome of a ‘snowflake’ generation issue, but when graduates enter the workplace with at least £40,000 debt, require a minimum of a 2:1 to even have the ability to apply for an unpaid internship, and are the first generation ever to be financially worse off than their parents, a desire for happiness in the workplace is hardly an unreasonable demand. 

My main concern upon graduating was getting a ‘good’ job straight out of university and avoiding the terror of unemployment. I managed to achieve this after a lot of hard work. However, I mainly considered what aspects of a job might interest me and which organisation would actually give me a job.

I hardly thought about what I was actually best suited to doing. 

Indeed, getting a job within six months is where many data collections end. They neglect whether recent graduates or school leavers stick with the decisions they have made and whether they are doing so happily.

Part of the reason young people end up in an unhappy situation in the years shortly following graduation is due to the poor state of careers education as well as a system that provides little opportunity to seriously 'try before you buy'.

Indeed, careers education has often been loudly criticised.

Former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has criticised the current system of careers guidance - Credit: PA Wire

In December 2014 Nicky Morgan, the then Education Secretary, said in Parliament that “it is widely acknowledged that careers provision in schools has long been inadequate.” Ofsted and the British Chambers of Commerce agree.

The Government has since pledged to spend £90 million on careers guidance. It has said it will publish a formal careers strategy later in 2017.

For the time being, the parliamentary Sub-Committee on Education, Skills and the Economy (ESE) found in their inquiry into careers advice that “too many young people are leaving education without having had the chance to fully consider their future options or how their skills and experiences fit with opportunities in the jobs market.”

The ESE has said that recent policy changes and new bodies “have failed to make serious improvements and in some cases have even been counterproductive.”

The sub-committee has accused the Government’s response to their report, in November 2016, as “burying their heads in the sand” and not addressing the core issues raised.

What will your child be? | The careers of the future

There is little faith that the new careers strategy will make a difference or address the crux of the problem.

So what would make a difference?

The key issue with careers education is the lack of opportunity young people have to gain meaningful insight into a wide range of careers, and to develop a deep understanding of what they want out of a career.

Yes, there are numerous internship schemes within a range of industries. However, many of these are deeply prestigious. They are regularly more competitive than the graduate jobs themselves. They often require young people to work unpaid or for far below the living wage.

To get a place on an internship scheme, young people must demonstrate that work experience with this company is the pinnacle of their life’s goals so far.

Yet sometimes, this just isn’t the case. Sometimes, the opportunity is needed to simply try it out for a week.

This is where work experience or shadowing usually comes in. However, this is currently conducted mostly through nepotistic parental connections when young people are still at school.

Whilst there is nothing wrong with taking advantage of these, it is of course dependent on family members having contacts in relevant fields. It also relies on students being mature well beyond their years.

How many of us actually ended up in the careers we thought we might like to do when sitting our O-levels or GCSEs?

The current system of careers guidance does not give young people the opportunities to discover and experience a wide range of different careers. They are often limited to their family and friends' social circles.

At 15, I had no ability to see what life was like as an auctioneer or a hotel manager. I also did not possess the maturity to know if these might be careers that I would want.

Of course, access to unpaid work experience and internships also assumes that the young person has the ability to work without pay for weeks, sometimes months at a time. This puts students from less privileged backgrounds at a substantial disadvantage in learning about career options than their wealthier peers.

This combination of internships and limited work experience does not give young people the opportunity to try a range of careers before committing to one.

It’s like marrying your first boyfriend after just one date.

The new careers strategy must allow all young people - from teenagers to students approaching graduation - to try out a diverse range of careers with minimal commitment, regardless of socio-economic background and parental connections.

Emma Rosen is trying 25 careers before she turns 25. You can find out more about her journey here.

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