On informal careers advice in a digital world of work

The following headline on the BBC chimed in with me: Parents’ jobs advice ‘disconnected’.

The article is about the dearth of digital skills. It is worrying if parents try to discourage their offspring from developing a skill set that is swiftly becoming as important as reading and writing. But there is a wider issue – nothing I’ve learnt recently, as I’ve known this for a long time: parental, or let’s say informal, careers advice is often more damaging than beneficial: in an employment market that is changing as rapidly (both through governmental policy and technological disruption) as it is, chances are that those who have risen into positions of responsibility (even as recently as the last 10 years) will have a significant disconnect to what would bring them there today.

That goes for advice on ‘safe’ sectors to work in (I’m looking e.g. at law and its bottleneck with regards to training contracts), expectations on pay and benefits, and on strategies on how to secure often illusive entry level employment. There is, in my humble opinion, a certain level of social selection – and benefits those who make their way into ‘research focused’ universities. This is often read as ‘better’ universities, benefitting the 15 or so percent of graduates to make it into ‘top’ employers. However, 85% of graduates do not benefit from this – and that’s where all the work lies for struggling careers services. This doesn’t mean that it’s time to tell everyone to learn coding or study IT – IT graduates struggle to find entry level employment quite a bit.

It’s a well documented catastrophe for schools based careers advice, entrenching informal advice (or none whatsoever) even further. There is some evidence that employer engagement both at school and further/higher education level helps. But there is still a need to interpret what they offer, and mum and dad’s advice just does not make the cut, as it’s most likely outdated by, let’s say 15 to 20 years.

And that brings in digital skills. I remember reading in 2002 about how 60% of the jobs in 2010 hadn’t even been invented yet. Well, they are now, and it’s an entirely different playing field. At work, I see that by the type of employment opportunities flowing in post financial crisis. In short: ‘banks down, digital up.’

In the end an appeal to parents, aunts and uncles, friends of the family et al.: your typical teenager is developing a skill set that will help them succeed in their pursuit of entry level employment. You can glimpse it by how well they explain your new iPad to you at Christmas, at how much time they spend instant messaging on their smart phones, and how adept they are at circumventing any online filters you may have installed on your home network (if you have the understanding to do so). Many of this you will find annoying (maybe not the iPad thing) – but it’s what will make them successful. Accept that you will always feel like you’re struggling to catch up – because you are (hell, so am I).

Don’t burden them with 20th century expectations. While your advice on many things is required (just think about helping them develop meaningful, intimate relationships), chances are that your job searching advice is not needed. It may even be damaging. If you can, get them into work experience early on (but let them find it themselves). Let them earn (and lose) money. If you can, encourage them to take a sandwich placement course (because that’s proven to be beneficial).┬áDon’t dismiss what careers advice is left in schools. And don’t undermine the work advisors do in colleges and universities: chances are that their advice will always be better than yours.

Now relax and try to remember how that thing on the iPad worked again…

June 12th, 2014 by