It’s always the most exciting part of my professional placement year – the annual PlaceNet conference. For three days, placements and employability professionals from about 20 universities discuss academic placements, employer engagement, and how to provide a quality student experience in an ever more austere funding regime. It’s exciting for me, as, since 2011, I am chairing it. You can follow the conference on Twitter under #PlaceNet15.
At yesterday’s first day, we saw five presentations: Kate Croucher, University Relationship Manager for FDM Group, gave her perspective from having recently moved from the world of university employability into industry. It was very interesting to hear how her understanding of universities – and how they function on the inside – is perceived by employers working with them. This was followed by an informative presentation on the social media habit of university students by Lizzie Brock and Alex Field from RateMyPlacement.They also focused on how placement services can build a content strategy when engaging with their students. Here is where the true theme of the afternoon emerged – the use of video.
PlaceNet Trustee Alex Elkins practising video interviewing
Charlie Reeve from Grad Consult picked up this topic, in his talk about expectation gaps within the world of higher education. He talked about how recorded video interviewing is becoming ever more popular with employers, and how important it is for students to be prepared for this. Charlie demonstrated this by getting the participants to video interview each other using their mobile phones.
A theme picked up again by Vanessa Airth, from London Metropolitan University, who talked about how the Business and Law School, uses video presentations for student assessment on their short placement module. The presentations finished with Mike Grey, from Coventry University’s EC Futures team, discussing how to ensure placement quality.
What followed were fresher’s drinks – sponsored by RateMyPlacement – and celebrating 20 years of PlaceNet with a yummy cake. What struck me as most interesting during this day, was that content creation and sharing (especially video) seems to be the hot topic for employers and students. Without planning it, this PlaceNet conference seems to become more of a hackathon focused on the uses … no, the dominance of technology, which has now clearly reached the world of higher education. This theme will recur in tomorrow’s installment on day 2.
The article is about the dearth of digital skills, and it is worrying if indeed parents try to discourage their offspring from developing a skill set that is swiftly becoming almost as important as reading and writing. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you will know my views on this. 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’ (meaning large and well known) 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 been 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 on 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 again: I remember reading in 2002 about how 60% of the jobs in 2010 hadn’t even been invented yet. Well, they have been 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, and may be damaging. If you can, get them into work experience early on (but let them find it themselves), let them earn (and lose) money – and if you can, encourage them to take a sandwich placement course (because that’s proven to be extremely beneficial). Don’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…
This blog started out as ‘What I’ve learnt recently … in one short paragraph’. What I tried to achieve was finding my voice on a number of issues that interest me: (higher) education (policy), the impact of technology on (work) life, work ethics and my personal opinions on these topics – but always from the perspective of what I had learnt from the experience, and not with too much effort. Call it an exercise in reflection, or an oversharing of my thoughts, 2013 was really the year I got into blogging a lot more. This is not my only blog – I run one on my personal life as a German in a small town in the UK (yeah, I’m one of those pesky EU citizens who came here taking your jobs…), and one about my decades long commitment to sci-fi role playing games (yeah, so I’m a nerd).
The themes and respective blog posts that came up this year repeatedly were indeed my experience being a foreigner – oh wait, a committed European citizen living and contributing to the UK society and economy. The recent media rhetoric about (the wrong kind of) EU citizens on this rankled with me on a number fronts – and I summed this up in my blog post about the gift of migration. What I learnt though was a bitter lesson – that in the current climate an anti-immigration argument will always win over an economic benefit in public opinion, and the benefits that international students bring to the country are no exception.
I know all this sounds rather pessimistic – however in the deepest time of sadness came a glimmer of hope: I was about to embark on my biggest and most painful personal lesson this year, when I was on my way to say goodbye for the last time to one of my oldest friends – it was one of those young people who showed me that this generation is not lost; they are just in need of the occasional help and advice, but they are perfectly able to find their way – which requires them to have professional careers advice. And this lead me to re-confirm my professional commitment to doing just that: helping others fulfil their potential, which I think lies at the heart of any careers and employability related work. And that’s not necessarily always about raising standards, expectations, or competitiveness – it’s often more about a realistic self-assessment and going for what young people want, not what they should want.
What will 2014 bring? For me (and pretty much the rest of our economy), it will be all about learning to interpret and understand data. That’s my prediction – and I’m looking forward to seeing whether I will look back on my pursuit of this agenda in a year’s time.
Hm, as for an editorial line, this is interesting – we’re confronted with very varied perspectives in the last two days: on how to advise his son about ‘serious subjects’ [NB: the link actually says ‘proper’], Rhiannon, whose writing I normally like, delivers an opinion piece right out of Michael Gove’s (!) toolbox, about how rubbish such advice is – at least as long is out of the mouths of trained professionals.
Let’s get this straight – many ‘professionals’ suck at their jobs, and don’t make good role models. We see examples of bad practice pretty much where ever we turn. So who will guarantee that those industry representatives who are supposed to go into schools give advice to young people that is impartial, well informed and confidential? And – who makes the judgement call who is an appropriate (professional) role model in the first place?
Just like teachers, professional careers advisors are there to help young people understand the world around them, and how to navigate a job market that is so complex and fast-changing that the parent generation has normally no clue what is happening ‘out there’ – at least not if it’s not directly within their own sector. [NB: I work in the field, but I am not a careers advisor]
There’s plenty of space for industry speakers, professional mentors and informal advice from parents – but pulling the direct one-to-one advice (and the funding for it), and then replacing it by online and phone ‘support’, takes away the opportunity for young people to engage with their potential in a safe and unbiased environment. It strikes me more as a cost-cutting measure than an attempt at improving young people’s chances – funnily enough, for especially vulnerable groups personal advice is still available; can’t be that bad then.
And that’s exactly what the CBI is saying on this topic: what was there as a support structure has pretty much been broken by recent policy. So even the employers that are supposed to go in and do a ‘better job’ than qualified careers advisors are asking for careers advice to be strengthened and enabled again.
As someone running a careers service in higher education, I worry about the consequences of these policies, and how they will affect the students coming our way in the next few years – and what repair job we may have to do in order with all those young people who never learnt the basics of career decision making in school. And for that job (not just checking CVs and doing silly online assessments), there are professional careers advisors.
I respect personal opinion and experience (and working in the field, my own experience has been indeed varied) – however I question what the Guardian will do to balance this opinion piece with something that is more informed and balanced.
I am however not really holding my breath, as I normally don’t see much of a rational discussion on education, young people and careers advice.
To which I say Yikes! Probably double Yikes! Why? See my answer below – I’ve just posted this on the comments underneath the article:
The best piece of careers advice I ever got was ‘study what interests you, not what you (or your parents) think will give you a job a number of years later’.
Firstly, you will never be good at something you don’t care about. And if just you’re good at something when you’re 16, that doesn’t mean you’ll satisfied with it for the long time you’ll be in your professional life. I’ve seen this in my professional practice, with graduates coming back crying – thinking they were failures, after having aced all exams and gotten into the ‘right’ industry (mostly finance), but breaking down after a year out when confronted with the realities of having to do something for long hours every day that they were just not ‘built’ for.
Secondly, employment markets change really fast – and what is seen as ‘hot’ when signing up for a course, may be a disaster zone just three years later. This is precipitated by changes in technology, which enables companies to outsource and offshore first, and automate later. Yes, this affects even classic identifyable professions like e.g. law.
But just going back to what counts as interesting, and then ignoring the world around us isn’t the alternative we should be speaking about. I studied something that was deemed to make me unemployable for the rest of my life – but I spent my time during university working fairly systematically on my general employability skills (just in order to deal with the spectre of unemployment at the end), and I worked, worked and worked in a huge variety of sectors and roles to gain as much experience as I could. These skills helped me get my first ‘real’ job (while trying to help my friends who studied a ‘real’ subject and were unemployed for long stretches), while the knowledge I gained during my studies gives me the edge now when trying to understand the complex world of work around me.
In short – every subject in university can become serious, if you make it so.
This is an experiential post – I’m writing about my learning as I learn. I guess it’ll cause some ripples in The Matrix (by reversing the polarity of reality or something similarly esoteric), but I thought as an experiment this should interesting. I’m currently sitting in a fascinating training by @case_europe on managing public affairs in higher education. Now before you go off to snooze, please hear me out: while learning about this…
Bit of a hush in the room at #public13 as we hear about Harvard’s crisis communication problems during the Boston marathon bombing
… I’m also contemplating how I handle broadcasting events like this – and why I do it. As my friend @kleinrules tends to say, during events, I take over his Twitter feed, pushing message after message on what I’m learning.
I’m not good with classic note-taking. If I write something down in a list or on a piece of paper, I will forget it. Being able to browse my tweets is to me almost as useful as creating a mind-map.
It enables me to share my thoughts, and open them up to scrutiny by you. And this instant feedback is then again archived, giving me a chance to record and later go back to the discussion in retrospective.
And it obviously gives me an opportunity to become more visible in my field. Not only for vanity’s sake, but also because my roles require a certain level of sector-based visibility, and this enables me to do just that.
As a professional in work (as well as for any job seeker) all the above are helpful. In comparison to the days of yore (before social media) I can also:
Look up (and connect to) the participants in the room. Trust me, I’ve done this today already: I’ve looked up all speakers on LinkedIn and Twitter, and have followed and interacted with a number of participants on Twitter. This creates better, and more active relationships than giving each other business cards and then losing them or forgetting to email each other afterwards.
Create a write-up on my blog – this is what you’re seeing now. Again, it helps me remember better, and gives you a chance, dear reader, to perhaps learn from what I’ve learnt.
It is events like these, and the connections I’ve made in the last three years, especially using Twitter, which have made the strongest and most beneficial impact on my professional life, and I can only recommend this approach to anyone.
This week, I participated in a placement event, organised by Cogent, the sector skills council for sciences. They asked me to moderate a panel discussion, which I happily did. But the part where I was shutting up and listening was (us usual) the one where I learnt the most. The life sciences sector employs about 150k people in the UK, and although universities churn out 30k qualified graduates per year (according to latest DLHE figures), only about 2k actually start working in their field of study. This leads to two things: companies having trouble finding candidates, and an aging workforce.
It should come to no surprise that placements are being seen as an excellent way to improve relationships between education and the industry, right along the lines of the Wilson review, which recognised their importance. And with some well deserved government funding, Cogent has launched a placements service (www.cogent-placements.com), helping to actively place students – and as part of that they are also launching a charm offensive trying to improve links between higher education providers and employers. Which is where the event fitted in.
It was well attended by more than 20 universities who run specialist courses, and we were situated in a lovely (albeit it hot) room at Nottingham Trent University (of which I’m proud to say – as it’s chair – that they are a PlaceNet member). So I saw some known faces, and met many new placement professionals, academics and employability specialists. Industry knowledge was represented by Cogent themselves, as well as an excellent industry speaker (Anthony Brown from CellCentric) from who showed not only great knowledge about what universities offer, but also a strong commitment to placements in general.
It would be foolish of me to attempt to summarise the whole discussion – have a look under #livescienceplacements on Twitter for details – there are a number of take home points that stuck with me:
The first one was really about the drivers within the industry that affect placements in this specific industry. Budgets are tight, and they affect the amount of resource which can be spent on R&D – which is of course critical in this industry. There has always been an extremely high staff turnover in the industry, which has driven the development of cross-company networks, and the creation of new ideas. Now this may sound useful from a placement perspective (students are a highly flexible, cheap resource), but it may create barriers, as HR departments (who sometimes don’t fully understand the specific skills needs of their labs) can become risk averse or just become ineffective under the strain. And it is of course a (business) risk to take on placement students, who will need more supervision (at first). However, those who do, pretty much invariably appreciate the input of fresh ideas (and questions) being brought into what is a sector which is dependent on curiosity and innovation. The question was raised who will need to make sure placement students have the necessary lab skills to ensure quality and safety standards (I can’t obviously resist from also bringing up the possible creation of a zombie virus in this context) – and some universities prepare their students specifically for this in advance.
But what really struck me was that while there was a lot of focus on the scientific aspects of student placements in life sciences, the panel discussion focused on the classic issues which surround pretty much every discussion about employability. I promise, I didn’t steer this – the panel was put together at the spot by audience participation and the questions they raised (pretty much the same format I used last year at the NUS zones conference) – you ask questions, you move on to the panel. The main issues raised were about balancing the interests of the four stakeholders involved: employers, who seek a flexible, qualified and cost effective resource; students often lacking the confidence and resilience needed to go through gruelling recruitment processes; academic departments who like the idea of industry links, but who sceptical of the employability agenda; and placements staff who feel underrepresented and who are generally often under resourced. Time and again, in these circumstances, the need for strategic clarity and institutional leadership in higher education seems to the deciding factor: if there is more than nominal buy in on the top level of an institution, coordination between academic and professional services, and addressing the classic barriers students face to take on placements (confidence, communicating their skills, and lack of mobility – often in response to economic factors).
All in all, I thought it was a very successful day – and it’s good to see that there is momentum behind fostering placements – from which all involved stakeholders benefit from.
Today I am at a local employability fair, organised by our local council. I volunteered, after finding out about it in a newsletter. So I called them up, and offered giving advice for young job seekers on how to – and how not to – use social media in their job hunt.
As I don’t like handing out paper handouts, I’ve decided to use my blog (and Twitter) as a way to summarise my hints and tips – and comment on any results. I’ll be using the hashtag #cipdl2w for this, as I’m supporting the CIPD’s Learning to Work initiative – and this day is spent with our key stakeholder group – those young people…
I will update the blog throughout the day, from about 10.30 t0 13.30 (hoping someone will actually ask me any questions…)
Update 11:25: Things are going slow, as it’s sunny and shoppers are passing us by rushing their Saturday shopping. So I took to the opportunity to have a chat with the stand next to me, where youth work apprentice Katie is representing www.action4youth.org, an organisation that helps young people realise their potential by providing Summer activities, such as the National Citizen Service, and local community projects. Katie is on a one-year apprenticeship after finishing school. We talked about the challenges of choosing not to go to university, but to pursue what is clearly a professional vocation – helping young people learn new skills and gaining qualifications. Having worked with HE students all of my professional life, it was both refreshing and very interesting to see the world of work in a new light. With the current generation of young people having been given the impression that the only way to professional success is higher education, I found Katie’s perspective, and choice not only interesting, but also admirable – by not choosing the path tread by virtually everyone else, but to focus on what is important to her. And as my lesson for today so far, it’s nice to have a reminder what’s actually really important in the world of career decision making – and that is to do what you believe in.
Update 11:50: Interview with the organiser of today’s fair
Mel, who works for the local council, has organised this fair, because she wants to do something about youth unemployment, bringing together local partners and providers. It’s part of the local child poverty strategy – and Mel has organised similar events before, and will do so again. The fair makes excellent use of the footfall in a busy shopping mall, trying to access young people ‘hanging about town’ on a sunny Saturday. The aim is to get young people registering with the national apprenticeship service (www.apprenticeships.org.uk), sign up for workshops and training. And it’s great to see Mel at work, helping – often parents, thinking of their children – bridge that chasm between school, and the world of work. I join her on the now busy front desk, where requests from all demographics of the local community are coming in. What I really like about her and the fair she has organised, is the obvious enthusiasm and genuine passion Mel shows for this endeavour. What I’ve learnt from this is, is that opportunities to engage with – and help – the employability agenda are sometimes just around the corner.
For the final update, from the morning after go here.
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.