Louisa Harrison-Walker: Complex issues to consider on way to a career

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REMEMBER your careers advice at school? Did you even have any? One of my colleagues who excelled in English and drama was advised to go into HM Revenue & Customs (no, she couldn’t understand why either) and another colleague was told not to pursue computer studies as “computers would never take off”.

It’s easy to look back and laugh, but a new survey has found that today’s pupils are still getting insufficient, and in some cases, downright bad advice about which direction to take after GCSEs.

A survey of 6,000 students by The Student Room revealed that over a third had received poor advice about A-level choices or careers. Many were not aware of which subjects and grades, including GCSEs, were required for degree courses they wanted to study.

The report also showed that it’s not advisable to rely on schools doing their homework on this; many aren’t and it’s up to students – and parents – to do their own research.

The world of work and the options available to you are endless. Our schooling system was designed in a very different era when the route into the world of work was fairly streamlined.

Today’s employment market, and the skills needed to work in it, are vastly different. The traditional route of A-levels and university has not necessarily adapted quickly enough to address this change.

When the celebratory corks for GCSE results have stopped popping tonight, it’s time to take a sobering look at all the different career paths. Planning ahead now can save anguish later on.

The first thing to consider is whether A-levels are the right option. The number of apprenticeship places being offered by employers has more than doubled in recent years to more than half a million, with a further 14 per cent of employers stating that they are planning to introduce them in 2014.

Education is fantastic, but in today’s tough job climate, are you better getting a foot in the company door? There’s an argument that some careers, such as PR and journalism, are best learned in the workplace.

One 18­-year­-old, who quit A-levels to become a PR apprentice, told me: “I was worried about student debt and I didn’t feel comfortable picking a degree without knowing what job I wanted to eventually go into. That made taking on huge student debt a real gamble.

“I always thought experience in the workplace would be far more valuable than a PR degree – I’ll have four years work on my CV when friends are just leaving university. I’m doing the job rather than listening to lectures about it.”

We have a couple of apprentices at Benchmark, one straight from school and one who was unsure of a specific degree to do after A-level results, so she decided that work experience would be more valuable.

She started on an apprentice salary and within two years she has had three promotions. She came with the right attitude and was open to learn – she didn’t think anything was beneath her,

I have worked with clients who have said they found it challenging employing graduates who felt that after three years of study they should be entering the workplace at a higher level, even if they have little work experience.

The companies I deal with say work experience counts for so much when it comes to employability. I am usually asked more about someone’s work history than the result they gained in their degree or A-levels.

If A-levels are the right route, choosing which ones is crucial. As one pupil said in The Student Room report: “Teachers did not explain that dropping, for example maths, would stop you being able to enter a wide variety of degree courses. Not one teacher tried to stop me dropping it when I did, something which I regret.”

Research what A-levels you will need for a specific degree and be hard-­headed. Don’t simply choose your best or favourite subjects, it’s vital to identify skill shortages so your university education will make you highly employable. There is a fairly notable skills gap in Yorkshire and nationally in engineering and manufacturing, creative, digital and IT jobs.

Three-quarters of students who have applied to start university this year plan to study a vocational subject like nursing or engineering, according to research from HSBC. The recession, slow economic growth and tough job market means students are thinking more carefully than ever about degrees which offer a good return on their investment.

Anyone considering university needs to think very carefully about which degree to choose. Never expect a degree to pave the way entirely – you must demonstrate a good work ethic, because there’s a lot of competition out there. Work the “soft” skills too. Part time jobs through college and university are fantastic experience and definitely look good on your CV.

Louisa Harrison-Walker is director of Benchmark Recruit in Sheffield.