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Mismatch - aspirations and expectations

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Chris Targett
31 March 2016

There have been several articles written with regards to the mismatch between the labour market and the aspirations of young people over the last few years, with an underlying assumption that if young people knew what jobs were available they would aim for them. This assumes that young people are making decisions based on their prospects for work; that they are pursuing career paths with the highest likelihood of employment and avoiding training for jobs where there are few opportunities. Unfortunately there is an inherent gap in this logic as many of the opportunities which are available, our young people consider to be boring. That is compared to their hopes and dreams for the future which have been significantly influenced by the mass media.

There is perhaps scope for a research study to see whether our current generation is less pragmatic than their forebears. I recall seeing a Billy Connolly show where he described his youth in Glasgow. These were the days when the schools opened their doors and the students walked from the schools straight to the shipyards. Billy’s dreaming to be a performer came after (and not before) the need to find work. In the intervening years Billy’s career has evolved as has Glasgow; both are now very different.

Some young people will seek local opportunities straight after school and be happy with this but, many will consider the fact that a small chance to follow their dreams is still a chance, no matter how slim. Consider the perennial favourite of young people to “work with animals”. We know opportunities can be limited in this area, yet young people are still eager to pursue the dream. Even if the only experience of this dream they have is to work with animals at college or university over a few years before transferring their skills into another line of work. Whether this is a positive or negative depends upon your view on these matters.

What we can see is that the gap between the available opportunities and aspirations of young people isn’t the fault of young people but ours as a community. We provide them with examples of aspirational careers through the mass media as well as at open days for schools, colleges and universities, careers websites and similar; we then expect them to turn a blind eye to this marketing and look at the available jobs. Should we be that surprised that their aspirations don’t match with the available jobs? In addition we disregard how young people develop and how fantasy develops into reality through exploration.

We know from Donald Super that young people reach vocational maturity at different rates and that many young people will enter an explorative phase which lasts from their early teens to their late twenties. It is during this time that their ideas and goals will repeatedly change as they grow and their sense of self and values emerge. Asking a young person at the start of this cycle, when they are about fifteen, to make a logical choice based on the local labour market needs alone, having fed them a diet of dreams, is an imprudent goal. However, educating a young person to understand how their ideas may develop and how the labour market could change, alongside clear information with regards the available opportunities, is less foolish. Plus, there needs to be time for young people to explore and understand different strategies to take advantage of these opportunities at different stages and at different times in the future.

For example, if a young person knows they can make choices at post-16, with an understanding of where these choices could lead, alongside the possibilities and the opportunities to make different choices at different points later in the future (as they change) they are empowered through knowing how the systems in place operate.

This is where Labour Market Information (LMI) and Careers Guidance can work in partnership, not to fit or force young people into the immediate labour market but, to help them chart the changeable waters of their career paths. It is the difference between hurtling along in the dark and having a light to guide you. Part of this is access to good quality LMI but equally important is being able to make sense of it through professional Careers Guidance and weighing the data up alongside all the other factors which affect our choices at different stages in our lives (including our aspirations).

Such Careers Guidance and LMI should not be a one off but should be available from primary school through to adulthood so, as our young people transition at different stages, they have information and support. Some will reach their aspirations but others may find their aspirations tempered by reality or reprioritised, as they shift from dreams to putting food on the table. In later life, it may mean a shift from one career to another due to illness or disability. In an ideal world, a labour market which allows for accessible and affordable retraining at an older age or, at multiple times, to upskill for the emerging opportunities, would be ideal; this however may be a pipe dream. Instead, help in navigating not only the available jobs but also available training to access these jobs in later life is essential. It is this which makes the work provided through the National Careers Service vital, as long as the contexts allow for careers management and guidance to take place.   

One way to ease these transitions through life is a greater awareness of how the skills which have been developed in one area can be transferred from one occupation to another. Imagine being able to assess the skills and see which other occupations needed the same or similar, as well as where the labour market shortages were which needed these skills. It is a concept which is in harmony with the ideas found in careers guidance, of encouraging clients to be more open to related occupations.

It is a step forwards from linking young people to directly related occupations, for example if you like carpentry you might also enjoy bricklaying. If we had the tools, we can then identify those which are also related through their transferable skills, for example teaching and business management are relatable (both requiring leadership and problem solving skills), but we could measure the extent to which they are similar and different. This is whereorganisations like EMSI are developing interesting new approaches to LMI data, building exciting tools which begin to do exactly this.

Yet, we need more than just local data when people transition. An assumption which is sometimes made is that people only need local LMI and won’t travel or look further afield. Whilst some people do stay local, not all do; for many graduates and those who seek to relocate, regional LMI is not enough. We need real time LMI (showing the current labour market needs) alongside predictive LMI at regional, national and international levels, balanced with professional guidance for clients on how to identify the opportunities in these different locations.

This is the future we need. The mismatch which is most damaging is not between the hopes and dreams of our young people and the available jobs but, between the LMI which is freely available to our clients and the LMI tools envisaged above. As professionals we can analyse the data available in the public domain but, for young people it is a minefield. Instead of accurate LMI they have television, magazines and social media which show them a fantasy labour market. How can we blame them for a mismatch when their hopes and dreams are based on examples grounded in a mediated fantasy? Finally, we have a mismatch between having enough careers professionals to help young people navigate the systems in place and reality; we are aware that not every school in this country provides in-depth support to young people by professional careers advisers.

So what can we do?

  • Careers organisations and LMI organisations can work closer together to support our young people and develop integrated approaches.
  • Schools can provide access to professional careers guidance and education, alongside high quality LMI from a young age, to help young people make sense and identify the evolving opportunities.
  • LMI could also be embedded into the curriculum at Primary, Secondary, Further and Higher Education so it becomes normalised.
  • Employers, Government and those supporting the unemployed can provide access to the same, to help those moving through the labour market and those removed from the labour market, to thrive or re-train respectively.

Let’s hope we can move forward together to make this happen in the New Year ahead.

Written by: Chris Targett

Originally published on the CXK blog, Tuesday 8th December 2015

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