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Hopes, Dreams and Employability

A reflection on employability and a call for changing the narrative.

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Chris Targett
13 July 2015

In careers work we often talk about keeping options open and being open to unplanned opportunities[i] however, students often come to us with a goal in mind. Whether this is derived from culture and the great unanswerable question of “what do you want to do when you are older?” which chases them from childhood to adulthood[ii] or, whether this is by their own design is a question for wider debate.

As Career Advisers we may help them explore multiple paths, leading to their desired goal. We might even discuss the labour market surrounding their chosen career or job family so, they know what is predicted to be ahead. The more enterprising of us, may also discuss “what if…” and show students where various alternative directions and backups may exist.

Such approaches fit very well for the graduate arena, as students may aim to study for example an Art Degree but then if this doesn’t lead into a career within their desired sector, it still leaves open the majority of graduate opportunities (if their employability skills are strong enough). From experience of working with students in secondary schools, many are quite thankful to be made aware of such built in backups to “the system” if their primary aim initially fails.

It is around Apprenticeships and similar however, where a shift of mind set (to be open to wider opportunities) seems harder for students; particularly when they may be faced with barriers and hurdles at a much younger age. For example many have their hearts set on a particular vocation such as being a Mechanic or a Hairdresser, considering wider related opportunities seems to be harder for these students to comprehend in terms of value. Many relate to the traditional linear path which, seems to be reinforced by how as a society, we often talk about careers.

What do you wish to do when you are older? (Singular)

As opposed to what things might you like to do? (Plural)

These students often assume their college course will guarantee them work in their chosen profession or at the very least, lead them to an apprenticeship; often they are disappointed when the reality of this isn’t always the case.

As a default, it seems that many of these students do find work but not in their chosen careers. Skills are transferred out of their ideal occupation and into what is available at the semi-skilled level locally (if not considering Higher Education); in the area of England I work in this is often retail. Yet this bubble of low skilled to semi-skilled jobs is limited[iii] and not so easy to move away from, especially once you start earning money and come to rely upon the income.

It seems that for many young people their hopes and dreams can be dashed at an early age, for a few, it is a satisfactory choice.

What can we do as Careers Development Practitioners to better support our vocational students?

  1. Work directly with those who are considering a vocational path early on in their career. Use accurate local labour market information to help students understand the broader picture and the processes of supply and demand for work which, affects availability of work.
  2. Link this data with the data which shows the over recruitment of some college courses, compared to the labour market so, they can understand the mismatch between the numbers of students taken on and number of places available in each sector locally.
  3. Help them to explore how skills are transferred from vocational training and college courses to available vacancies, with some students moving into low to semi-skilled positions or through further training moving into management or professional roles. This exploration can help them to consider what the changing shape of the labour market may mean for them.[iv]
  4. Use all of the above insights to then begin to help them build strategies for success and future resilience and flexibility, to be able to take advantage of the changing labour markets; challenging false expectations which, can lead to disappointment. 

Strategies can be varied and could include such things as, considering how learning to drive maybe important as part of a longer term plan. 

Or it maybe building experience in related vocational areas, to create the environment for opportunity. For example encouraging potential Plumbers to look for work in Plumbers Merchants or Building Stores, as a stop-gap but, also as a strategy to place them closer to their desired labour market.

The Linear Path

Through the above we begin to change the popular narrative of the linear path. How often do our default career discussions look at charting a step by step path from school to college or training to work? We can change the narrative to reflect the actual labour market as opposed to what can almost be seen as a fantasy or collusion.

Other elements we may consider is how we can improve those often discussed but quite elusive employability skills. Including coaching on how to cope with rejection from applications or when plans change. 

We can do this through taking them through an employability psychometric, such as Carrus[v] or more informal discussions as to what employability skills are and how we can develop them. Ideally laying foundations for these skills to be developed whilst in school, through activities in classes and at home.

Lastly, taking a progressive stance to seek out vocational and school leaver opportunities for students can reap dividends; this is our employer engagement and looks to not just accept the labour market as presented.

Crucially for students seeking their vocational paths, this work should be done at the same time as schools are preparing their Higher Education candidates, to instil a sense of being valued. Students taking vocational paths need to understand that they are as equally valued in their choices, as those preparing for Higher Education; otherwise they are starting from a demotivated position and being set up to fail.

Having seen students who are seen as “troublesome” or struggling in an academic setting being “sent” to local colleges for their vocational training whilst, in statutory education and then judged by the other students as being inferior; I can see how valuing and devaluing options and individuals within a culture is important.

This concept of being valued has been put forward by several commentators, one of the most popular being Dale Williams who understands the importance of being valued and selling the “sizzle not the sausage” - his Ted talk is a must see. [vi]

Having everyone around the students working together and valuing the differing choices, creates an environment where change is possible but only if we help students escape the dream of a linear path. As advisers we must stop colluding with students that it is a common path; thus releasing individuals to consider wider opportunities and be open to new ideas. 

All of the above becomes an agenda or context to set the careers work in. If we are to stay true to our ethics[vii] it becomes paramount that we are transparent with our intentions to the students we work with; choice must remain at the centre of what we do, as through the above we are not intending to steer students down one path or another but, help them grasp the opportunities they have chosen to aim for.

We can either continue to do what we have done and sell the students the pipe dream of a linear vocational career path or, embrace the chaos and prepare students to take advantage of what this 21st Century can offer by helping them to build strategies that identify opportunities, meeting change and chance head on.  


July 2015


[ii] The question asked by teachers and parents “What do you want to do or be when you are older?”

[vi] Small town big change: Dale Williams at TEDxAuckland, Published on Aug 22, 2013 -

[vii] CDI ethics, accessed July 2015 -


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