Preparing students for working life – Are we missing something?

By Elaine Mead. Elaine, 31, is a freelance writer and tutor. She lives in Perth, Australia. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

There is much written about preparing students for working life and the various approaches, considerations and delivery – or lack thereof – that educational institutes have in place. The delivery and quality of careers services across the world are continually under scrutiny and it seems there are few places that get it right.


Numerous employer studies and research back up the expectation for young people entering the workforce to have a well-rounded and developed set of skills when it comes to starting out in work. It’s no longer about having good grades, and in my opinion, I don’t think it ever was.


A survey by Highfliers, called ‘The Graduate Market in 2015’, , helps to illustrate the importance employers place on work experience. After surveying one hundred of the UK’s best known employers, nearly half warned that graduates who have had no previous work experience have little chance of receiving a job offer for their graduate programs.


This isn’t new or surprising, and with further developments in the world of work, the increasing importance on ‘future skills’ and the need for young people to be extremely adaptable, the importance of well-rounded career education and work experience is increasingly highlighted.


It would seem that the pressure is on, in the world of education, to ensure that they appropriately prepare students for working life.


Many schools and colleges in the UK are reinforcing this and – although work experience is no longer compulsory – are still working to provide opportunities for students. Unfortunately in my experience this is often following old ways of engaging young people — a week block of experience with one employer, careers fairs or yearly careers talks from the same companies. If we are to really give young people the best chance of being prepared for working life, the way we approach work experience and engage young people in careers needs to change.


Work-Related Activity over Work Experience


To be clear, I don’t see preparing students for working life, providing an academic education and broadening their minds as separate things. They are intrinsically intertwined. There has been a somewhat modern uprise in the idea of linking work and careers to us as individuals – in seeking work that fulfills us, allows us to challenge ourselves and adds value to our lives. These things aren’t separate – and we need to get away from thinking of them simply as boxes to be ticked off during a student’s academic journey. They can, and should be, linked together and changing the way we educate about careers; and work is the best way to do this.


The Education and Employers Taskforce carried out research that suggested young people who receive a series of high-quality encounters, engagement and activities with employers go on to earn 18% more than peers who haven’t experienced the same opportunities. They also found that they were significantly less likely to become NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training).


That’s pretty powerful stuff, and a testament to the opinion that engaging young people in a variety of well developed, planned and delivered work related activities can have a really positive impact on their future journeys into work and life in general.


Work experience still has its merit here, but it needs to be delivered in conjunction with additional activities, mentoring, action plans and feedback — from both the student and employer with development points. There is often a focus on ‘hours’ booked in work experience over a quality experience. This is where longer term placements can have a more positive impact for the student, as the focus in on longer term skills development, learning outcomes, and perhaps most importantly of all, a broadening of the student’s concept of work and careers.


Career mentoring, employer talks, industry visits — all add to helping young people build a broader view of careers and work experience. Team building days between students, schools and local employers can add to this as well, where the focus is not so much on ‘work’ or ‘careers’ but skills building that will benefit them in life, not just work.


Final Thoughts


Working with university students, I see the importance of work related activity being taken very seriously with many of them putting their name to every opportunity they can get their hands on. The only criticism I have here is that the majority of them are doing this half way through their degree, and a lot of the experience looks ‘noisy’ on their CVs. I don’t see students being selective in the opportunities they take up but rather trying to cram as much as possible onto their CV with the hope that it will help them stand out. It’s coming across when I question them about their reasons behind choosing particular options, with many of them unable to provide a well thought out answer, linking to future career aspirations.


In a climate when making decisions about career directions are being made earlier, a solid understanding of work is essential for young people to help them make the choices that are right for them.


Work related activity early on gives students the opportunity to start forming better developed ideas, so that when it comes to university and work-related decisions, they can make better, selective decisions about what they want to do and how it will aid their future ideas. Not just for work in the immediacy, but for seeking fulfilling lives with a career that compliments their ideas and values.


A school and/or college mediated work-related activities are key to aid this.


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