When I grow up…communicating the value of skilled sectors

Careers advice in schools has once again come under fire – this time for causing teenagers to underestimate what they could earn in skilled sectors.

Research by the Edge Foundation, to mark the launch of this year’s Vocational Qualification Day Awards, asked young people to predict what they could earn in technical or skilled roles. In some cases the respondents undershot average earnings by almost 40 per cent.

According to published statistics, the sector with the highest annual earnings in 2014 was electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning. But only one in six teenagers guessed it was in the top three. When quizzed, they thought average earnings in this sector would be around £23,000 when it actual fact the figure is closer to £38,000.

For those of us working in further education these findings come as little surprise. Skilled sectors have an image problem in the UK. Schools – together with parents and pupils – often see them as second choice and second best. Some of this is to do with how we classify skilled roles. Teaching, medicine and engineering are arguably vocational sectors, but much better regarded than hairdressing, catering and construction.

Poor careers advice is no doubt part of the problem. I worked as a head of careers in a comprehensive school in the late 70s and early 80s and it is clear to me that we have gone backwards in the quality and provision of advice.

At that time we had a careers department, with people skilled, trained and dedicated to advising pupils about their future options. Even then there was a pressure to ensure that the supposed brightest students stayed on at school to follow an academic route. Fast forward 35 years and few schools have a dedicated careers advisor, let alone a department. In most cases careers advice is added to a teacher’s responsibilities and young people tend to get advice based on individuals’ own career routes and limited industry knowledge. Meanwhile the push to keep pupils at school continues.

Better careers advice and earlier intervention would help teenagers make informed choices about their futures

Better careers advice and earlier intervention would help teenagers make informed choices about their futures

Moves to improve the quality and provision of careers advice will certainly help young people to explore a broader range of career options. But it needs to be delivered early enough. By age 16 it can be too late. Funding changes mean that people have a limited window in which to train for a specific industry without incurring costs. If a young person at 16 realises that electrical engineering is the route for them, but then needs to spend time improving their maths and science grades before taking the relevant qualifications, they only have until 19 before needing to fund their education. I would support earlier intervention and more creative ways of communicating job roles and opportunities.

I also believe that we need to have a broader conversation about teaching in growth industries. I remember some years ago when it suddenly became apparent that plumbers could earn £60,000 a year. We had graduates arriving at colleges wanting to retrain as plumbers and all of a sudden the sector faced a shortage in skilled teaching staff. If you can earn £60,000 as a plumber in industry, why would you want to give that up to come and teach – something that is potentially a tougher job with a lower salary? If we are to promote and encourage more young people into skilled sectors with attractive salaries, we need a teaching model to support it.

Finally, let’s be realistic about job roles and earnings. We need to be cautious about average earnings, which can be skewed by a small number of people in top roles earning sums that the majority won’t attain. We also need to help young people access job opportunities in straightforward and accessible ways. If we say that construction is a growth area, we should be able to show them the jobs and be clear about the best route into them.

As part of a thriving vocational education sector, we all want to do more to raise the profile of skilled jobs and the opportunities they offer for satisfying careers. But we also need to ensure that we look at the issue as a whole and don’t hunt down careers advice as the one and only solution.

Sally Dicketts is Group Chief Executive of Activate Learning. Follow her on twitter @sallydicketts

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