In her first speech as Britain’s new prime minister, Theresa May was keen to nail her credentials as a one nation Conservative firmly to the mast as she spoke of ‘burning injustice’. She cited the limitations on educational and professional opportunities faced by ‘white working class’ boys and those who go to a ‘state school’.
While economic status is clearly a factor, raising young people’s aspirations and ensuring they have the ability and wherewithal to realise those ambitions, is much more complex. Many of our perceptions of the world of work and where our place in it might be are set from a very young age.
Exposure to different professions, opportunities for work experience and information acquired informally from friends or family, all help to shape our perceptions and expectations of our own future careers. The old adage ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ has some resonance, as access to informal networks is recognised as a powerful advantage.
Medicine is an obvious example of a profession which often runs in families and one not easily accessed by those in low socio-economic groups. If there are no doctors in your family or your social circle, chances are you are not likely to become a doctor. Addressing this kind of inequality is a challenge, but growing evidence shows that careers information, advice and guidance can be a powerful means of boosting young people’s ‘social capital’.
Evidence shows that young people who have access to good-quality career interventions are more confident about their choices and make more successful transitions into employment, apprenticeships or higher education. Not only that, but 10 years later they earn more than those who didn’t. Or put it another way, each careers talk is worth an extra 1.6 per cent on your salary.
This week saw the release of the results of a survey of students attending University Technical Colleges (UTCs) across the country, carried out by the charity Baker Dearing Educational Trust which establishes and supports UTCs. They received almost 2,000 responses and the headline stats make for interesting reading.
Clearly going to a UTC gives you a very positive outlook – 86 per cent of the respondents said they were confident of getting a job suited to their skills when they had finished their students. This is far beyond the expectation of many young people; for example, a recent survey found only 48 per cent of university students thought their education would secure them a graduate-level job.
The other striking thing was what the students valued in helping them to plan their future careers. Overwhelmingly, it was talks by employers, visits to workplaces and work experience (91 per cent, 90 per cent and 91 per cent respectively) which they found most useful.
One of the things which distinguishes UTCs is that each one is sponsored by a local university and by local employers. Crucially, this means that UTCs have well-developed relationships with local employers which offer opportunities for work experience, visits to work places, employer-led projects and talks by practitioners.
This sort of employer engagement not only exposes young people to a greater breadth of occupations than they might be familiar with, but helps them to develop a better understanding of the skills which employers need. Students at UTCs often have highly developed problem solving, teamwork and communication skills arising from the project-based and ‘learning by doing’ focused curricula.
A good illustration of the value of careers advice, information and guidance is the experience of Ashley Freeman, an 18-year old student at Aston University Engineering Academy (AUEA). Ashley’s dad works for the local council and his mum is a receptionist at a local business, but working on cars with his dad sparked a passion for engineering.
Ashley opted to go to Aston University Engineering Academy post-16 because it gave him the opportunity to study for a BTEC diploma in engineering alongside A-levels in maths and physics, and get the hands-on experience he enjoys. He’s also a dedicated Sea Cadet and planned to join the Royal Navy when he’d finished university. However, a talk from Captain Andy Cree of the Royal Navy Marine Engineering Advanced Apprenticeship scheme put him on to a different path. Ashley says:
‘The plan was always to have a career in engineering and join the Navy, so going to university was a means to an end. The careers talk made me think again. Instead of spending three years at university at huge cost, I could start at a higher level, have more managerial responsibility, use the engineering skills I already have and earn a salary.’
Quality careers advice, information and guidance, along with employer engagement can create options for young people. For Ashley it was finding a career pathway that better suited him; for many young people it can provide an opportunity to find their own passion, map their future and bank some ‘social capital’ in the career coffers.