On the jobs
Every student should be given a transition year in which to carry out voluntary work, learn new skills and explore different careers, writes Sophie Livingstone
Career choices are crucial, so why do we have to make them so early?
MANY STUDENTS will receive GCSE and A-level results this month, with most now thinking through their next steps. It can be a daunting time: how many of us knew exactly what we wanted to do for a career at the age of 16, 18 or even 21?
And yet, the system assumes that young people will know exactly what their first career move should be. Those at university at least have some time to work this out; to mature, join societies and create networks.
But, of course, it’s not uncommon for young people to finish higher education unsure of what their immediate next steps will be. Unless they’re completing a vocational degree – medicine or law, for example – the chances are that they have multiple career pathways available to them. How can young people be expected to make such monumental decisions with so little life experience?
This point is not lost on young people themselves. The Prince’s Trust Macquarie Youth Index 2017 says that 36 per cent of 16- to 25-year-olds do not feel in control of their job prospects, with that proportion jumping to 50 per cent for young Neets (those not in employment, education or training).
We also know from a recent Social Mobility Commission report that the social and economic divisions in our society are widening, burdening future generations with broken communities and low economic prosperity, potentially making it even harder to get into the right career.
The government has at least realised that one template doesn’t fit all when it comes to education and career pathways, and has pledged its commitment to apprenticeships and technical education, particularly following the Sainsbury review. However, this suggests that young people need to make decisions at an even earlier age around which job or sector they want to be trained for, potentially without much knowledge of their strengths or the long-term impact of their career choice.
This approach might be why – according to research by the Oxford Open Learning Trust – almost half of 25- to 34-year-olds who have undertaken apprenticeships have already changed careers.
And to increase the confusion, research by the Institute for Public Policy Research has found that many apprentices already have qualifications at the level of their apprenticeship. So it seems clear to me that young people need more opportunities to understand and test out their own strengths, skills and assets before they can make more informed choices.
Get students work-ready
The government is planning to create a transition year, which was first proposed in the Post-16 Skills Plan. The purpose of this year will be to develop achievable career plans and skills, including literacy and numeracy, for those lacking them. For many, in the government’s own words, this will be “a catch-up year”. But such a transition year aimed at those that the exam culture has labelled as failures won’t just be inadequate, it will potentially be even more damaging than the current academic focus. Young people don’t need to be stigmatised further if formal education has failed them.
Top graduate recruiters, such as Ernst and Young and PWC, are realising this, and the government should take note. Ernst and Young, which has over 15 applicants per place, found that, after scrapping its exam grades requirements, nearly a fifth of its 2016 graduate intake wouldn’t have even been eligible to apply under the old system.
Businesses have also been saying for years that young people aren’t adequately prepared
for the workplace, regardless of their exam results, with the CBI reporting in its last work survey that nearly half of businesses were not satisfied with the resilience and self-management of young people. The British Chambers of Commerce Workforce Survey showed that three-quarters of firms believed that a lack of work experience was the reason why young people were unprepared for work.
There is a real opportunity for the government to be bold here. Why not create a transition year for all young people; a year in which they can have diverse experiences outside of their comfort zone, develop their skills and explore career pathways previously not encountered through formal education? A year that will allow them to not only build up their skills and improve their employability, but also make real improvements to their communities and country.
Other countries have taken such steps, with great success. The US, France and Germany have strongly established full-time voluntary national community service programmes, allowing hundreds of thousands of young people to give millions of volunteer hours every year to serve their country. Americorps in the US allows 80,000 young people to take part in full-time volunteering each year, and Demos’ Service Nation 2020 report said that those who participated were 27 per cent more likely to find a job than those who hadn’t taken part.
The traditional gap year in which UK students spend time on short-term volunteering projects abroad, followed by an extensive period travelling, is often seen in a negative light, only available to those with parents who will fund their travels. But there is an opportunity here to transform the concept into a positive must-do transitional experience for all young people that enables them to build up real-world experience and make a difference.
There has never been a better time to properly explore this. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is investigating the legal and regulatory barriers to full-time social action and volunteering in the UK, and is due to present its recommendations in December. I hope government support for a social actionfocused “transition year” will come out of this.
This would open up opportunities for young people, transform the way they move into employment and improve the world around them – for the benefit of themselves, and all of us. Sophie Livingstone is chief executive of City Year UK