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How do we help more young people to ‘succeed’ at school and college?

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A recent article from the head of an all girls school, made the point that we need to move away from obsessing  about getting A grades and that a B or C was good too. Her point being that not getting A grades led young people to feel they have failed or to not even try if they felt they would not get an A.

This got me thinking…

If as a student, they fairly naturally do well academically, that that success alone will help motivate them to do more and do better – i.e. strive for those A grades. But what about those for whom academic success does not come so naturally? What is the motivation for them to do better? Telling them ‘they might get an A if they try really hard’, or worse still, just be told ‘you have to do well at school or college if you want to get a good job’?! But if they don’t know what a good job is or are not excited by that thought then it seems we run a risk of them then disengaging. And with a generation who are increasingly vocal in asking ‘why?’ and challenging convention, when they do not get that success, many will start to question what is the point, or in the immortal words of Catherine Tate’s ‘character Lauren Cooper’ … ‘am I bovvered’?

So how can they be better inspired?

Young people need to know much earlier about the different jobs available and be excited by them. It is unlikely disengaged young people are going to be excited by dry academic subject matter, but the application of that subject matter and what ‘cool’ jobs it can be used in stands much more chance of inspiring them to then bother and do well in their education.

In short they need to be shown how what they learn can be applied in the real world of work – not just learning for learning sake.

We, as an organisation, have seen very recently a great example of this, with an unengaged student in an FE college, who was not performing well and had low attendance rates but through the experience given to him in one of our SPACEs, engaging with employers and the opportunities in the world of work, his attendance rate moved to 100% and his performance significantly increased. And why? Because he had a motivation and reason to bother!SPACE_Logo_FINAL_BlueWe have seen this too with our Bright Futures School Societies, where a student who was struggling with confidence and to achieve in the classroom, but by engaging with the society activity and employers, his performance and impact grew significantly.

In short we run a high risk of not maximising the potential of many young people who have great untapped potential, if we expect them to do well at school and college because that is what we expect them to do. We need to invest much more time showing them how their education can be used in exciting careers that previously they just did not know or were bothered about.

What apprentices bring that graduates ought to…?

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There has been a lot of talk in the media about the word ‘apprentice’ and that it still harks back to the old days of what apprenticeships were, as opposed to the huge variety of different apprenticeships today. So should it be given another name as it still has negative connotations?
This may make you think again, it has certainly got me to alter my view…

Following the recent AGR Student Development Conference and various discussions I had there with other delegates I am wondering whether an individual seeing themselves as an ‘apprentice’ as opposed to a ‘graduate’ could actually make an individual more attractive to employers, and here is why….

When an individual starts an apprenticeship they know they are at the beginning of their journey, they have lots of learn; need lots of training and will have to work hard and as they progress on this journey they will become more and more useful and valuable to your employer. As their usefulness grows their career moves forward and salary with it.

Whereas still too many graduates on landing their first graduate job (especially when it is a formal graduate programme) believe they have arrived, they’ve ‘made it’ and their career will ‘happen’. Becoming a graduate may be the end of the academic learning journey, but it is the beginning of the next journey of learning to become valuable for, and really contributing into, their employers’ organisation.

And so why does this ‘entitlement’ attitude still occur with so many?
1. Something (and don’t ask me what it is!) happens to students at University to make them believe this; that they are special in some way (I will be honest it did for me and it came as quite a shock that I was in no way special –yet!)
2. So much of the recruitment advertising and marketing attracting students to formal graduate programmes talks about ‘future leaders’ and has case studies of current Main Board Directors who started as graduates and achieved this in record time, with not enough focus on what those now Board Directors did to achieve this (especially focusing on the attitude they had to demonstrate to get to that position)

I know that individuals, who land places on formal graduate programmes are ambitious & have significant debt so need their career and thus earnings to move upwards as fast as possible, but it does seem to me the ‘attitude’ of working for it, the need to be constantly learning and improving their skills can and often is lost.

Being an apprentice, in part, means ‘I need to learn to become useful’, so employers will need to make that investment but that investment will be falling on fertile ground because the apprentice has joined the organisation to learn, whereas too many of those on (expensive) graduate programmes still just expect all that training as a matter of course and forget why it is being given to them.

I am not saying recruit apprentices and not graduates, I believe both are and can be hugely valuable, but with graduate programmes perhaps some thought can be given to the recruitment messages being used, and with the activity employers do on campus (with our Bright Futures Societies, for example) as opposed to yet more CV & Interview workshops, why not share insights into what it takes to succeed when they get into the work place?

The Future for Employability…Personal Responsibility?

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The latest AGR magazine (http://www.agr.org.uk/Graduate-Recruiter) has an article from Paul Redmond, Director of Employability at the University of Liverpool, ‘Dancing in the Dark’ which makes some key points:

– University is about learning to think, develop opinions, process information and grow as a person but it is also about work AND study.
– The Careers Services ‘task is to prepare students for the world of work, while employers provide the opportunities’. But this is not enough, he says, employability cannot be done to people (a point I have been making for years), ‘students have to engage and take responsibility’.
(I agree with both his points, by the way!)

And not by chance, employers want to hire graduates who will also take responsibility, in this case for their personal & professional development, their career and their future – in essence employers want their new ’emergent talent’ to take a lead and drive their own futures.

This ‘taking of responsibility’ it would seem is thus an agreed key theme and attribute that students need.

It is for this reason I am so passionate about our Bright Futures Societies, in Universities and Schools. Through these Societies students are taking responsibility for their employability and taking a lead on what they do when it comes to careers, skills and their future for their peers.

However does ‘taking responsibility and taking a lead’ get the profile at University that it clearly needs to? Through our work in schools, we hear more and more about ‘student leadership’ and the Schools that are establishing Bright Futures student Societies, see what a great opportunity for student leadership the Society presents. For some reason I just don’t hear that message as strongly at University. The University ‘Experience’ absolutely provides huge amounts of opportunity to take responsibility & to a lead but it seems that the important trait is not highlighted enough and made much of.

Students know that to get good jobs they need to demonstrate key skills such as team work, communication, flexibility etc, but do they realise how important ‘taking responsibility’ will make on their futures?

Career Opportunities – lack of Supply or lack of Demand?

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So 83% employers think young people need better career advice and to develop skills for employment, according to yet another survey – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-24873223 – shock horror!

Employers have risen to the challenge and opportunity of offering more apprentices and career opportunities to young people and this is very much what is needed. The UK has an increased supply of career opportunities & jobs for young people, and that is both with the big employers and the SMEs too – by way of example a friend of mine who runs an SME is about to start recruiting two. BUT not nearly enough is being done to create the levels of demand for these opportunities, again I was at a meeting with a quantity of SMEs locally just recently and one of the companies has had unfilled apprenticeship vacancies for over a year!!

Why is this?
For most School leavers the only post education option they really are fully aware of & understand is University; the alternative of work opportunities are mixed and confused with dated ideas about apprenticeships, not to mention the range of apprenticeships. It is this area of creating demand that now needs effort and focus.

How can this be done?
The government quote that caught my eye was the statement that their new reforms are ‘putting employers in the driving seat’, which is all well and good for the government to show itself as being pro-business but what about the young people in schools themselves. Why can they not be put in the driving seat?

Provide students with the opportunity to find out for themselves about their career options post-secondary education, because realistically no career advisor (however knowledgeable) can be expected to know about all the careers available. Encourage the students to set up job / employment clubs at School, like our Bright Futures School Societies, and create career events for themselves and their peers which brings them into contact with employers who offer those range of career opportunities (be that graduate post University or school leaver and apprenticeship post school) and thus put them in the driving seat for their own futures.

The Rise of Personality

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At the recent Bright Futures Society Committee National Training Conference (hosted by the excellent President of City Bright Futures) one of the committee members asked the panel of employers we had assembled: “If so many graduates get a 2.1 and they all have work experience, what are you looking for now to differentiate one applicant from another?”
Great question and the answer, which drew agreement from all the panel was simply ‘Personality’.

So have recruiters come full circle and returned to a place where it is the individual personality that makes the difference, not their degree, nor the type of work experience they have been able to secure, because so many have these things?

This feels to me like a great leveller, especially when we hear so much about issues such as social mobility, as the issue of the contacts students may or may not have to get work experience is less valid, the University they attended is less important, what matters, as I sum it up to students is ‘YOU’!

Back in 1994 when I started out in graduate recruitment we used to talk about ‘Knowledge, Skills and Attitude’. We always said that the most important was Attitude. The world was, and is still, full of very Knowledgeable and Skilled people who under perform but someone with the right Attitude will want to build their skills and knowledge to do the very best with what they have and constantly be better; and that was what you want to hire.

So our message to students when we are working with our Societies is simple, yes getting a good degree matters, yes work experience matters, but what matters most is YOU.

This then is the message that recruiters need to be communicating to students and their potential hires: ‘You’ and who you are matters; Your Attitude matters and does make a difference. What a refreshing message to give and how great for students to hear that!

Currys, Dancing Graduates and How to Interview

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You may have seen the recent press about a graduate being asked to dance at their interview for a role at Currys (to Daft Punk, in case you are wondering!) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-23972952
The graduate was rightly surprised by the request and felt very uncomfortable. There has been various comment on the back of this event about employers seeking to make the interview process more fun and to be innovative in how they recruit. I am sure Currys want to be see as innovative & hire fun people in a customer facing role, but is this the way to go about it?

Dancing graduates may show their have confidence (not to mention little or no shame!) but will it really give you an insight into their passion for customers and your products & services? Getting good people is key for any organisation and how you engage with them before they start with you will play a key part in the calibre of those you hire.

This then got me thinking about some ideas on the recruitment process for graduates and how to do it well.

Interviewing is a two way street and no matter how tough the job market is, alienating candidates through the process risks not just losing good candidates (the graduate in question turned down an offer for another interview with said retailer) but causing a lot of damage to your brand.
The whole purpose of a selection process is not for it to be ‘fun’ nor for it to be ‘innovative’ – those might be nice extras but not the focus when designing how companies bring great people into their business. It is for recruiting organisations to find the right talent, AND for the applicants to find the right role for them.

So what would just some of my tips be?
1. Employers should have a selection process that reflects the culture of the organisation and gives the candidates the best chance to show their natural abilities, talents, behaviours and attitude and how that links to what is needed to achieve in the role.

2. Worth also giving thought to how you reject applicants. Don’t just email them ‘thanks but no thanks’ and ‘wish them luck in the future’! Instead offer them some tips or advice for their future job hunting. If you are going to take the time contact them and say ‘no’, there is an opportunity to do it more usefully for the applicant. It can be standardised advice so take no extra time.

3. When inviting them to interviews give them some tips and advice so they can prepare as best as possible – even if it is to say that they should take the time to prepare!

4. Make the selection process a learning experience for the candidate, where they learn more about the business and the role, which ideally will lead them to wanting to work for you more. So for Currys they could have applicants spend 15 minutes just walking around their store before the interview and then feedback what they saw, with comments and suggestions, that in itself would lead to a good, useful & relevant discussion for both interviewer and interviewee.

5. Stop obsessing about how to make interviewing ‘fun’, because let’s face it on the whole it is not fun for the applicant nor do they expect it to be. They take their job hunting seriously (more so than ever) and expect it to be demanding (but fair). So provide opportunities for the candidates to get a feel for the culture of the business, by meeting others in the team for example. Graduates, we know from feedback from them, are fully aware that the world of work is not easy and not all fun, so don’t try and pretend it is – show them how it is, what I call being ‘positive but honest’!

6. My final comment would be that there are many opportunities for recruiting organisations to themselves stand out to applicants and thus increase the quality of hires, through ‘moments of connection’. These are opportunities to show the human side of the organisation and connect with the applicant making them feel like an individual, not just someone to be ‘processed’ or go through a series of selection activities.

So if you want to be innovative find ways to ‘connect’ with your applicants as far too many organisations just process them like numbers. Those who do not, and create ways of recruiting people that reflects the organisation, makes it is learning experience for recruiter and candidates alike, and truly ‘connect’ with their applicants will be taking another step to ensuring great & relevant talent join the organisation.

Is the summer a good time to recruit graduates?

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With tens of thousands of graduates melting their way through graduate ceremonies this summer it begs the question as to who will hire them.
A small % of the total number of fresh graduates will have secured themselves employment but the majority will be job hunting now or about to start.
Some employers might feel that the ‘best’ graduates will already be hired, and whilst that in part is true, many very talented graduates will not.

So as an employer why should you be confident that there is still lots of good talent available now & through the summer (or indeed year round)?

1. There is huge pressure on students (from their University, family, peer group etc) to achieve that all important 2.1 and get the very best academic results; as a result many will purely focus on that outcome and put off very time consuming job hunting until after exams

2. Students want to make the right career decision and will decide to make the time to do their searching and choosing for their future in a considered & focused way, with no other major distractions; we all know how time challenging it is to personally job hunt when we are in employment (todays students face similar time challenges). I know I would much prefer to interview a graduate who said ‘I was not sure what I wanted to do for a career whilst at University and so made a conscious decision to not apply then but wait until after exams and get the decision right; rather than apply to jobs in my final year because that is what I was told to do and all my mates were’ I want graduates who are applying to my organisation to know what they want to do and can articulate why – if they cannot do that be they an undergraduate (who has applied during their final year) or graduate (who applies in the summer) they won’t get past me! So making the time to get that right gets an applicant a ‘tick’ from me.

3. Graduates today are potentially facing 50 years of work, with the pensionable age getting later and later, so many will want to go travelling and enjoy their last long holiday until they retire! I am not sure we should begrudge them that?
And linked to this point and if you are thinking they should have wanted to start their career already, delaying it a few months is kind of understandable, isn’t it?

There is a caveat to all this in that at this time of year there are plenty of graduates applying for jobs, who have not been so decisive in their job hunting plans during University and the trick is to be able to differentiate one from another.

So is the summer a good time to recruit graduates? Yes there is plenty of great talent but you need to know what you are looking for – and part of that will be evidence of that considered thought during University.