Jayne Dowle: Why connections count for career opportunities

STATE school pupils are failing to receive the careers advice they deserve, says a major new survey. Tell me something I didn’t know.

My friend left school with two O-levels. He says one word sums up the careers advice he received: Kes. Down the pit. Down the pit. Or, er down the pit.

Twenty-odd years on, he’s ended up as a financial advisor. In his dreams, he would be a sports journalist. But that wasn’t the kind of thing a lad fell into, in Barnsley, in 1986, with two O-levels. No-one spotted his potential, and he was too scared to shout up.

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You might have hoped that things would have improved since then. But a staggering 64 per cent of the students and young adults surveyed by FutureFirst, a group hoping to change school careers advice, said that the guidance they had received at school had not helped their future careers.

Talking to my university students, the constant complaint is that typical careers advice is often well-meaning, but it has absolutely no relevance to real life.

Unless you know, in your teens, that you definitely want to be a nurse, say, or something else with a very specific career-map, it’s too vague, too idealistic and lacking in insider knowledge or approachable role models.

Now, you might think that at a time when education budgets are being slashed, school careers advice could be regarded something of a luxury. After all, who really takes it seriously?

When I said I wanted to be a fashion journalist, the teacher raised her eyebrows, and suggested I get work experience learning to type in an office. So I did. I applied to the Sheffield Star and several other local newspapers and spent the summer compiling wedding reports – “the bridesmaids wore peach duchess satin…” – chatting up vicars for parish news, and acting as an unpaid model for advertising features.

But given the number of young people without a job, and given the domination of certain careers by a certain elite, never has careers advice been more important. If it was tough when I was a teenager, it’s a lot tougher now. I learned pretty early on that if you wanted to do anything remotely out of the ordinary, you were on your own.

I didn’t realise then that some of my contempories-to-be were already half-way up the career ladder, given a shove by mummy and daddy’s connections at the BBC or on national newspapers. And never did I imagine that one day I would mentor a steady procession of my own “workies”, some of whom have gone on to employ me in return. Or find myself mopping the tears of students who simply cannot find the financial means to spend a week in London gaining the experience that might just get them a decent job.

So I don’t need Nick Clegg to remind me about the moral issue of “interns” working for free, although it is amusing to find out just how many politicians dropped on their first job. But the Deputy Prime Minister, by wading into the debate about whether it is right to “employ” young people to work without actually paying them, has done the whole invidious house of cards a huge favour.

It isn’t fair, and increasingly, this self-perpetuating system pushes out any kid without parents rich enough to support their offspring.

What Clegg – and his political colleagues – need to do now is to keep the momentum going and not duck out of any embarassing revelations the debate throws up. They also, crucially, need to hook it up with the findings of this FutureFirst survey. If careers advice should teach kids one thing, it should be that getting on in life is not about what you know but who you know, whether you leave school with a clutch of GCSEs or get a masters degree.

And, considering that the average teenager changes their mind about their future plans more often than their Facebook status, surely it makes sense to really hammer home core skills such as networking, contact-building and business sense, rather than bang on about training courses. Especially when the survey also found that only six per cent of public school pupils were unhappy with their careers advice.

When the old boys’ network is as alive and thriving as it clearly is, who are they to need careers advice anyway? Daddy will just ring his pal in the City, and that’s your summer placement sorted.

Alan Milburn, who by dint of his Geordie accent seems to have acquired a role as a social mobility expert, says that improving the career chances of our ordinary kids is all about “equipping young people with the skills and knowledge to succeed in a high-skilled economy”.

I don’t suppose they worry too much about that at Eton. So if you ask me, he’s missing the point. Rather, we should teach our kids to have confidence in themselves, to milk every favour and leave them in no doubt that it’s a cruel world out there. Nick Clegg, if you can pull that one off, it will improve your own CV no end.