Last week, I spoke at Amity University’s conference on Student Engagement, Wellbeing, Holistic Development & the ‘New Normal’. I talked about how we can move from just about coping with remote working now to opening career opportunities working from anywhere and I will publish it in two parts. This installment outlines my thinking on the first part of my talk: what we need to do to make remote work sustainable, not just a stop-gap during the crisis.
Many jobs cannot be done remotely, and we need to recognise that there is an imbalance towards middle class people with university degrees who hold those who can. There are many aspects of social justice I will touch upon, as they are crucial for making remote work … work on a societal scale. I think the underlying inequalities affect us all and that the remedies may help us all, too. If you want to read up on the intersection of career guidance and social justice, I highly recommend Tristram Hooley’s work on the topic.
Holding it together
Last March, after a long period of dithering, the UK government decided to bring the country into its first lock-down. So we all immediately had to work from home. Many of us hated it and feverishly waited for the moment to return to ‘normality’. We all tried to manage on a daily basis, often juggling homeschooling and care responsibilities. We really just tried to get by.
Previously many employers claimed that it was impossible to offer remote work to people with child care responsibilities or disabilities. This turned out to be mostly … inaccurate [ed.: what I really meant was to say it was bullshit]. I remember when disability campaigners pointed this out. Suddenly, employers made reasonable adjustments – now that they had to be made for everyoneelse, too.
The ‘old normal’ was not normal
Soon, more underlying social grievances became apparent. While managing our own anxieties, we found that our living circumstances were less from ideal. For the first time since the Industrial Revolution we all lived and worked at home again. It turned out that our housing stock was not geared towards this new normal. Neither was our service based economy, which was highly dependent on commuting and consumption.
We faced the pressure to stay both physically as well as mentally healthy. And as the economic damage of the pandemic piled up, new anxieties emerged. The threat of economic collapse and mass redundancies became dominant. Even the most neo-liberal governments enacted bailouts and rescue packages. Naturally, at some point they tried to push us back into the office. We can safely say now that that has not worked, as the virus still ravages through especially the Western world.
Can remote work become the norm?
But also, people didn’t want to go back to the office, just like that anymore – here in Ireland that is 90% of remote workers [ed.: this is a bit simplified, but I pulled the stat from the excellent National Remote Work Strategy, p2]. The longer the exception to the rule extended the more it became the new normal. And we had to dig deep to keep holding it together, as we developed new coping mechanisms. At some point flexible and remote working advocates started to ask the questions: ‘what would we need to make this new normal bearable?’ and ‘could we even thrive?’
My answer to this is – yes, we can thrive. I think we can reach an equilibrium, as we slowly turn a corner, and rethink the way we commute, consume, and commune.
What needs to change?
The way I see it, this will require wholesale economic and social change. When listing up the different factors that play a role here I notice that most of them are outside of the hands of individuals, though. Yes, we can build resilience, develop personal coping mechanisms, practice mindfulness, or whatever else gets us through the day. I do, too. But that is not enough. We need fundamental change. We need:
Secure housing, so no one gets evicted while we are all supposed to shelter.
Consistent and effective public health policy, offering Covid prevention and treatment.
Financial aid. State aid can tide over parts of the economy central for the time after Covid-19, but which may not survive until then.
Digital infrastructure and widespread digital literacy are central from hereon.
And finally, fairer employer-employee relations. Employees have been flexible and made sacrifices to keep their employers afloat. It’s time to recognise that and develop new partnerships.
And that’s just the baseline. [end of part 1]
Hailing frequencies open
Want to read more? I will publish part two shortly, where I will talk about what education could do to help enable graduates pursue remote careers.
Yesterday I spoke to student services professionals as part of an AMOSSHE continuous professional development day event (see slides above). In two 2h workshops, we moved through an overview of social media channels, and how to use them in the pursuit of improving the student experience. I like doing talks like this one, because they not only get me out of the office in a physical sense, but also in a mental one. I like traveling on trains as this allows me to gather my thoughts, and I like talking about my professional experience – not only to satisfy my considerable ego, but it gives me a chance to reflect on what I do as a professional.
And there were a couple of challenges, from which I’ve picked up some learning experiences. The first one was that I had to prepare more than I normally do. I tend to think that I’m a competent and confident public speaker (see ego reference above). However, the length of the session, the focus on student experience rather than employability, and the fact that one of the participants was hard of hearing, gave me additional challenges – and food for thought. I normally don’t use slides, but I learnt that in order make my talk more accessible, it was useful to send in a slide link in advance. That disrupted my preparation process (which normally entails drinking green tea on a train). And I’m thankful for this, as it helped me focus my effort more – I guess I normally impose my learning style on others, by choosing my specific presentation style. Probably not great pedagogy. Being disrupted in this way made me focus much more on being clear in what I was trying to say – and sticking to it. And that was a great learning experience.
Another learning experience was that social media in higher education seem to settle themselves. Gone are the days where I had to argue their worth in general, and that they are not a fad – but that they are now understood to be professional tools. The question is not if, but how they will be used. That’s a clear change from talks only about two years ago – and it’s a delight, as it is more exciting territory than showing people how to set up an account and explaining what a hashtag is.
The third one was a question I was asked: how do you make sure that every in a team picks up the necessary technical understanding to use these tools competently? The answer I came up with was probably not really satisfactory: you can’t. I have found that teaching people technology related skills is the hardest training challenge I have faced so far. I think that socialisation and self-perception play a role, but essentially, technical skills only ‘stick’ if you use them immediately and without giving up, even though you will fail – a lot. My overall personality (I’m nothing if not persistent), and my experience in learning martial arts have fostered this a lot: ‘try, fail, get up, try again’ is so ingrained into my personality that working with me must sometimes be frustrating – people probably think I enjoy making mistakes. But back to fostering technology learning – I think it’s all about patiently ‘enabling trying, failing, getting up and trying again’. It can’t be forced – but I think it can be fostered by building a diverse team with enough technology positive people who can help their colleagues along. And that doesn’t just mean ‘young people’ aka digital natives – as they don’t exist in my experience.
So, all in all, a stimulating day, and a great way to get to know others in related professions. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
PS: I’m also experimenting with a feedback form for participants. So if you were at my talk, give it a go here.
I didn’t get an opportunity to write my final update at the fair, as it got increasingly busy towards lunchtime, and I started helping with channeling people in (and yes, I actually also gave a social media clinic – albeit to another provider). There are a few patterns that made me think: The first one was that about two thirds of people coming into the fair were parents, step-parents, aunts or uncles, looking out for opportunities for their young charges. Sometimes with them, sometimes without them. The other pattern was that many of them came clearly not the middle-class, or upper class background that I’m used to from higher education. Which made me both hopeful and sad. I made me sad, because it became clear that measures taken to support youth employability are problem-centered, rather than developmental – what I mean by that is that young people’s employability is something that is applied to solve a problem carried by young people (such as real uncertainty about their future), rather than an opportunity to grow and develop young people as a chance to improve society by helping young people find their way. I know this may sound naive – but again, my experience is mostly in higher education where that anxiety about the future seems just less prevalent. Yes, I have also worked with many first tertiary education engagers, and bluntly just (economically) poor students – but this was another level of … desperation. I won’t raise class and the barriers to attainment as an issue just yet, but may do so in the future. I just want to point to the emotional impact it made on me, and how that impacts on my thoughts. But there was hope – and that showed with every person who made their way into the fair, especially the parent generation. They clearly knew that education and skills (on whatever level) are the key to attainment and economical improvement (I’m not saying prosperity, as I think the stumbling blocks put in their way are daunting) – and they came to make their children’s lives better. There has been a lot of public maligning of this strata of society, and a blame culture has emerged, which combines attitudes to class with fear of of youths – at the fair, organised by the local council, with local education, training, volunteering and job providers, that attitude was absent. And I can’t thank Mel enough for showing commitment and drive to organise this.
What I’ve learnt – even more than I already knew – is that we (society, media, elected officials, etc.) don’t only need a change of policy, but also a change of attitude. This is nothing young people have to do to for us – this is what we need to do for them.
I always enjoy visiting the ‘North’, where @martinedmonson and his Gradcore/Graduates Yorkshire outfit roams. The Gradcore conferences are always worth taking part in, as they are a brimming with critical thinking and debate on all things employability, graduate recruitment and employment. In order to stay true to my blog’s premise of sticking to one paragraph, I’m focusing on only one unconference track (look it up – learn something new today) that I ran with the ever excellent Vanessa Gough, legendary recruiter, from IBM. From the creative chaos that is an unconference (and the contributions of … wait … actual students), emerged a theme about what makes students employable – or better a number of characteristics: employable graduates are not clones, who have been coached to answer interview questions. ‘Employable’ is basically a meaningless term to students, and they don’t collectively buy it either. For them it’s really just another word for ‘professional’, describing a graduate’s outlook, conduct and mindset (introducing the term graduateness feels dirty, so I’ll abstain). The latter is not just achieved with clever module plans and learning outcomes, but by giving students the opportunity to engage and learn about how to be professional – based on their own effort. Yes, academic and professional support can help – but the responsibility sits with the learner. One participant (who trains professionals for the NHS) summed it up brilliantly: in a hospital, when a patient is admitted, a clock turns on immediately, which counts down to the date of the patients release – and the time is filled with opportunities and measures for them to get better (double meaning intended). The healing is done by the patient – and is influenced by their ability (and sometimes willingness) to engage with the opportunities to improve their situation. The clock ticks for students as well, and by the end of their stay (their degree), the students are now sent out into a challenging post-crisis environment. Employability professionals can’t force results – and they shouldn’t try. It’s also down to their universities not to make unrealistic promises (or set pointless targets), but to nurture, foster and challenge where appropriate, as in the end they are educators. Well embedded employability in (and outside) the curriculum helps, but only if it doesn’t become just an internal measure which makes the university feel good about their ‘employability figures’ (a misnomer at the best of times). It’s about true preparation for life after university – and getting there is certainly not always pretty, but challenging, sometimes even scary – but sometimes comes with beautiful results. To exemplify this, I’d like to use one of Vanessa’s stories. It was about a graduate who had taught herself sign language to support a hard of hearing regular customer in the restaurant she was working in, making their customer experience more enjoyable. Only when she told this story in an interview did she understand how much that said about her in terms of her true professionalism – and yes, that was what made her employable in the end. I must admit, for a moment, I had a tear in my eye.
I’ve been in a room in which a government representative told seasoned schools and council careers advisers that they were not skilled enough (‘only’ level 4, not level 6) and therefore failing as a profession. Needless to say there was no money for the allegedly required upskilling. I think she meant to say something different, but that’s how it came out. The reaction was predictable, the chair had to control an majority of the audience of about 60 people, who felt not only threatened of losing their jobs (as they had seen so many colleagues do), and worried about the young people they are responsible for – but also humiliated. The chair, poor soul – oh, that was me – was fortunately on pain medication (for a toothache), so he didn’t join in the rebellious mood, and was relaxed enough to bring order to the room. The main question raised in the ‘reforms’ to careers, advice and guidance in schools and councils has been if face-to-face advice was to be protected. A newly released report by the education select committee shows that it wasn’t Where I work, we pride ourselves for the highly individualised and impartial advice we give – and it is thanks to laudable professional organisations like AGCAS who protect this as a standard; but we’re working in higher education, which has seen its share of questionable ‘reform’ on the professional services side, but not something as damaging as what is happening to careers advice and guidance in schools. What am I learning from this? I think it’s a message of resilience, one about despairing in the face of problematic, badly evidenced decisions by the ‘powers that be’ – but to calmly and rightfully challenge, to get organised in professional associations [declaration of interest, I’m the chair of PlaceNet], and to take part in debate after debate, forum after forum; and to constructively, but persistently, wield the better argument. I’ve long learnt that a) I’m not always right, and b) this makes me the annoying kid in the last row – but that’s probably the best thing I have to contribute. That’s what I’m paid for – professional integrity and impartiality in the interest of our clients and stakeholders. And, dare I say: wider society. We’re not only here as service providers, but as guardians of our respective professions, as careers advisers, registrars, placement officers, and employability professionals. My ultimate lesson for today is not to despair, but pick up the pieces and start again – and to lead by example.
“I didn’t come to university to get a high-paid job. I came to get a job that I wanted to wake up and do.” This was only one of the impressive comments at the employability debate I moderated at the National Union of Students Zones conference in Manchester last week. True to the mission of this blog, I had to mull this one over for a bit. There was a lot to learn, and I may come back to other key parts later – but the main lesson was that ‘we’ as educators, academics, CEIAG or employability professionals, might sometimes overlook what the students are looking for in higher education; and it’s not only a degree and an employment outcome – it’s so much more. I have often written about my impression that education, with its quality regime and learning outcomes may have become a bit reductionist, but I wasn’t prepared to be told that putting employability at the core would be viewed just as critically. I liked the culture of the debate in that no tenet was safe from being questioned, and the exceptional variety of opposing viewpoints guaranteed a plethora of opinions and ideas to agree or disagree with. What I have learnt was that the expectations towards an academic education may still be more classically one of the Humboldtian idea of wider learning and personal growth and that the commoditization of HE that guides many of our professional lives within HE – how do we present ourselves, and our academic ‘products’ – may not resonate with a significant number of our clients/customers. In a sense, there’s a chance some of them may ‘call our bluff’ and tell us that they are not after an ’employment outcome’ or a market information based ‘choice’ after all. Part of me sympathizes with this – as my own academic curriculum as a student was lovingly ignoring the employment markets (our careers service was solely for us ‘no-hopers’ in the humanities and social sciences ‘who would never have a job’) the other part of me resigns itself to the fact that education has so clearly ’embraced the markets’ for the last decades, that it seems unlikely that we can – or should – return to a more classic model of academia. Personally, I always thought a middle way to be the natural path to take; but if we take our client base really seriously, should we not take their motivation to engage with academia more into account? To close, I’d like to draw the attention back to the quote at the beginning of this post – this certainly resonates with me. Deciding to work in academia certainly hasn’t made me rich – but it enriches my daily lives in ways which I personally wouldn’t have found anywhere else.
PS: I will emerge myself in probably a wholly different mindset and opinions today, when again in Manchestr, I will be at the Futuretrack conference on … graduate employability. Follow #futuretrackconf for live commentary.
Last week I shared my musings whether employability is the core product of higher education, and my answer was in short ‘not just yet, but it might be soon’. I was challenged on that point by an academic at an Inside Government policy forum I was invited to speak at. The question that was brought forward was almost ‘how dare we not make it the core of our provision, if we’re charging ever higher fees?’. Fair enough – we made the promise, and have started taking money at point of delivery. This also chimed with a recent discussion I had with some outstanding graduates who had joined a major brewery’s trainee scheme whom I had met recently – their views were even more pronounced – they referred to higher education as basically a big scam; over years students were fed the line that if they sought a ‘proper’ degree from a ‘reputable’ institution (both had studied humanities degrees from well established institutions) , employment outcomes would be there for them. Their expectations reflected not their naivety, but the promises made – not only all the smoke and mirrors of destinations statistics and the careers based marketing talk to cajole them into a specific institution – but the expectation raised in a generation that had been told that the only path to success would only lead through higher education. They only did what ‘we’ told them; too bad with the economy tanking in the meantime. So while preparing for today’s panel debate with the National Union of Students in Manchester, I came to understand that I have to rephrase the question to ‘should employability be a core outcome of higher education?’ – and my answer is a clear yes. However the old school academic in me might argue that there are vocational and non-vocational degrees, the goalposts have shifted. Education is now a commodity (whether we like it or not), and the knowledge economy depends upon a supply of talented, educated and trained recruits. Academia produces a lot of the knowledge they need, but has to make sure it changes it pedagogical approaches so that students become employable. It’s just keeping up the promise we have been making for too long, so we can’t step away from it now. Note that I didn’t say ’employed’ – what HE institutions are currently measured on in DLHE and KIS is mostly employment and this is a highly volatile matter and very different outcome – see my views on that here. I personally dream of a university that allows students the academic freedom to explore their subjects as deeply as they wish (with minimal ‘outcomes based learning’ constraints), but makes available, and embeds employability into the curriculum. And I see some excellent work, especially within sandwich degrees – as recognised by the excellent Wilson review. Let’s see though what I learn this week from those that represent our actual clients – the students.
This is more a thought processs than something I’ve yet made my mind up about – it was raised by an excellent presentation at last week’s Westminster Forum Briefing on graduate employability which I had the privilege to be asked to be a speaker at. The first talk, by Nannette Ripmeester (follow @labourmobility) focused not only the biggest impediment on UK graduate mobility within – the lack of foreign language skills on the whole – but also raised the question if employability is the core product of higher education. She mentioned the limitations of curriculum development led by employers – pointing out to the differences in focus and communication between corporate and HE organisations – and raised the question which inspired this blog entry. So far my answer is – no, it is not. At least it didn’t use to be: Employability has become part of the product as part of the drive towards putting a price tag on higher education, helping to justify the investment by students and their parents into their tertiary education. The question is now how effectively HE institutions can make accurate claims about how they impact employment rates (which are a partial indicator, but not conclusive evidence of employability – I wonder what Karl Popper would have thought of DLHE destination statistics) and how this is based on other than brand recognition, ranking and social coding. So here’s my current take on what is a thought which I intend to develop over the next three weeks as I have two more conference appearances and will get a chance to talk to policy makers, HE professionals, employers and most importantly, students. Here goes: Graduate employability is not the core product of HE yet, although it may become it over the next few years. I think employment and salary statistics have become the main marketing tool (with the Key Information Sets exercise closing the loop), and in following the old adage of ‘you get what you measure’, this dilutes the earlier definition of higher education as a transformatory experience which combines acquiring knowledge with self-directed learning about an academic discipline, part of which can be applied in the world of work, part of which makes you a more rounded person who can look beyond the immediate problem at hand (which is a key skill to become an academic). This shift in marketing HE has undoubtedly changed expectations about the core product – but it seems that product development (the courses as they are being designed) may not have caught up with the claims made by institutional marketing. And to remain credible, and competitive with other English speaking markets (that includes the whole Bologna higher education marketplace – see my comment above about language skills) UK HE needs to focus on creating high quality relevant products.
This is more of an update, as I haven’t found a calendar / scheduling application yet that announces dates in a format that I’d like it to. So in this post I’ll map out my upcoming speaker engagements in the next two months. I can’t really say what I’ll be learning just yet (so it’s a bit off topic) but I’m looking forward to some stimulating discussions and live tweets – and some valuable lessons to share.
There are two slots on employability and higher education policy, wearing (mostly) my hat as chair of PlaceNet – Placements in Industry Network:
As usual around this time of year, I will be delivering a talk about using social media and employability to alumni of London Metropolitan University and next month to students and staff at the University of East London. And I’ll be at the Futuretrack Conference in early November. So, a busy two months.
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