Skills will be needed for a brilliant career in the 21st century

21st March 1997 at 00:00
I'm beginning to worry about vocational guidance. I think there are two conflicting messages about working life, and only the traditional one is getting through to young people.

One is that life beyond full-time education is hard, so students had better plan their education and training options with a view to their future job. The other is that careers for life are no longer a concept, and that most people now entering employment must look for two or more career changes during their working life.

Don't get me wrong; careers education is vastly improved since my day, when you carried on being educated until your teachers told you to jump, which was why I went to university. I had two career ideas. I would never teach, and I would rather write a novel than have a child. In 1970, by which time I was a teacher and a mother, careers advice in my school was displayed on a noticeboard outside the woodwork shop. If you didn't do woodwork you went to university, I suppose.

So things have improved. Primary pupils work with businesses and learn economic awareness. Secondary pupils have work experience and careers education. They know that there are no longer jobs for all, and that graduates do not have first choice of what's going. Many of them feel that they should urgently decide what they are going to do; or if they don't, their parents do. Even those who don't think they'll ever get a job have a sort of negative plan for the future.

When they apply to college, we ask them if they have any ideas about careers so that we can tell whether they have selected the right courses. So we are compounding the idea that you choose your career early and, usually, stick to it. One of the problems is that teachers do regard teaching as a job for life, even nowadays.

Those who leave because of cuts or more immediate threats to jobs, and go into another kind of employment, often react like someone driven to divorce against his will by the wholly unreasonable behaviour of his spouse. They don't see it as an opportunity to rekindle motivation, let alone as a natural way of broadening their experience. So, although we are told that many people must look to change course several times during a working life, and that we should all regard ourselves as essentially self-employed and therefore in control of our own lives, and although we believe it and pass it on, we don't do so with conviction. Consequently neither parents nor teachers yet feel that transferable skills and generic qualifications are as important as content and single subjects.

We still interview good applicants who decided at 15 what career they wanted and have researched the courses and qualifications they will need. The most we suggest is that they may change their minds later, but we don't tell them that they may need to learn flexibility because of changes in patterns of work.

Of course, there's a good side to students who know what they want to do. Everyone knows that a sense of purpose increases commitment and drive, and that these are success factors. But the need to establish a career path early on reduces the desire for breadth in the last phase of general education.

Far better, students say, usually supported by their parents, that they should concentrate on what they really need than that they should broaden their portfolios and open their eyes to the many opportunities offered by the full-time programme.

I suspect that the situation is different in colleges which are not in the middle of town, to which students are bussed daily. If they are isolated at college during the day, they may well prefer breadth to boredom. But our students are urban and occupy the time when they are not studying with part-time jobs - many of them, indeed, need the extra money. So the students who fill their programmes with extra courses or activities tend to be of two kinds.

There are the exceptionally able and variously talented, like a colleague's son who did five A-levels when he needed only two E grades for university: asked why, he said he didn't want to get bored.

Then there are those who are academically weak and know that they need a broad portfolio to compensate for the lack of depth. There is no general feeling that all of us should have as many strings to our bow as possible, living as we do in an uncertain world, and that the strings are easier to collect while we're in the string factory.

I suppose that things will improve when higher education demands evidence of key skills as a condition of entry, but the basic assumption will not have altered. I still fear that the pressure on students to decide which career they want to pursue is raising false expectations about the nature of work in the 21st century, as well as limiting students from discovering themselves by taking up new and different opportunities when they have the chance.

Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon

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