Dinner Table Career Guidance

How should we be guided by the labour market data and what careers advice can we give to our children today that will benefit their tomorrow? Mum of 3, Tina McKenzie explains....

Feb 1, 2016

Changing times

For years, many families across Northern Ireland (and indeed across Ireland and the UK) have been advising their children that the sure set way of getting into a prosperous and fulfilling career is to gain qualifications in subjects that guaranteed a steady income. Foremost among these was accountancy, law and teaching.

Unfortunately for many of our young people, career advice based on projected income does not mean the job they have trained for will be there in the end.

For Millennials in particular, the path to a successful career will be more varied than ours, and in some ways more challenging. The concept of a ‘job for life’ is virtually extinct for them, with many predicting young people can expect to have nine jobs over the course of their working-life and at least one major career change.

Even so, our young people continue to invest significant amounts of time and money gaining highly specialised qualifications often chosen based on recommendations from family members based on what jobs were most lucrative in their time – not necessarily which jobs are most in-demand.

As a society, we have to reconsider if this is the best thing for our young people and for our economy. Coming from the recruitment and employment sector, it is frustratingly obvious to me that we do a disservice to our young people when careers advice does not emphasise the relevant labour market conditions for different sectors when young people are considering qualifications.

 What does the future hold?

 So when I sit around the dinner table with my three children and we discuss what the future holds for their careers, we often discuss that no one thing guarantees a job, but there are three things they can do to better their chances.

 1.         Invest your time and money wisely

The costs associated with many qualifications are enough to make any person pause. While the time spent away from the labour market is a concern in itself, the increasing costs to qualifications mean young people must have the right information to guide their decisions.

 With the introduction of tuition fees, many students find themselves graduating into a labour market where their investment may not deliver the return they expected. The Department for Education’s £33m plan to encourage older teachers to retire is being put on the table at least partially because of the surplus of education graduates in the region. Since 2013/14, over 2000 graduates have registered with the General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland, but about 1400 do not yet hold permanent teaching positions.

At the same time, the Royal College of Nursing published a survey in December which showed that 41% of vacancies in private nursing care had been vacant for 6 months or more. The shortage of nurses and other healthcare professionals has been well documented for years, yet we still struggle to recruit qualified candidates.

A teaching qualification, while bringing a student closer to noble and important work, will lead to much more uncertainty than a nursing qualification. We must be honest with young people about this to ensure anyone who does decide to go into a sector with an oversupply of candidates is determined and well-informed of the challenges they may face finding employment – anything other than this transparency is incredibly unfair to our young people.

 2.         Gain skills that set you apart or are transferable.

Gaining in-demand skills goes hand in hand with my first point on qualifications, but this is not limited to higher education.  For example, did you know one of the most challenging skills shortages we have is in butchery? The almost crisis-level shortage in LGV drivers has also seen local employers panic last October that there would be a slowdown in online deliveries. Neither of these jobs requires the high investment of higher education, but the shameful practice of deriding certain blue-collar jobs means these roles often are not discussed with school-leavers.

But more importantly, our society must start looking at the importance of transferable skills. The most common ones we discuss are soft skills such as team work, communication, problem solving and time management. However, transferable skills go much beyond this.

Taking the example of a person who is among the 1400 teaching graduates without a permanent position – what transferrable skills could that person bring into a new role? If that person was fortunate enough to have gained commercial skills, they could leverage their skills in education to develop a business plan and open a tutoring company. This could be a form of self-employment for a short period, or it could develop further into a national company such as Lindamood Bell or Sylvan Learning in the United States. Sylvan Learning in fact was first opened by a former teacher and today has over 500 centres across the US.

We also know that skills in computer programming are in demand across sectors – whether that be finance, medicine, or the creative sector. For our young people, they do not necessarily need to gain a computer science qualification in order to learn how to code – for many it’s a hobby they have picked up. So, for example, a jobseeker with a qualification in theatre combined with a computer programming hobby will set themselves apart in our burgeoning film industry if competing for a digital media role.

 3.         Work experience is as valuable as high marks.

Ultimately, there is no ‘one solution’ to guaranteeing employment. However, there is only thing that is guaranteed – an employer is more likely to take a chance on someone who has proven themselves before. Previous work experience shows a young person can fit in a work environment, listen to direction, and grow with an organisation.

This emphasis on “work experience” has seen many schools encourage or require short one-week placements for young people. While valuable, these should not replace sustained part-time employment during school, something that is worth its weight in gold.

In June 2015 the UK Commission on Employment and Skills (UKCES) issued a report on “The death of the Saturday job” which shows that in 1997 42% of 16-17 year old students were studying and working. In 2014 this had declined to only 18%. With figures like these, can we be surprised that employers often cite a lack of work experience as a problem among candidates?

Education without part-time work leads to significant time away from the labour market, with many young people not getting their first jobs well into their 20s. Our society must encourage young people to focus on their education and qualifications, yes, but we must give them more viable avenues to gain sustained work experience alongside this.

Future Opportunities

There is no ‘one solution’ to guarantee our young people will find work in tomorrow’s labour market, but our society can do better to equip them. Some predict that 65% of schoolchildren today will end up working jobs that do not even exist in today’s labour market. Some of these we can predict – we will see many more jobs in Big Data, 3-D Printing, and Advanced Robotics for example – but some we cannot even fathom yet. Our job then is to guide our young people down paths that give them as many transferrable skills as possible with all the information we know on our labour market. We owe them this honest guidance.