Schools must do more than ask ‘What will you be when you grow up?’

A question people always ask when you’re growing up, is “what do you want to be when you’re older?”

At the time you might have answered something like “footballer” or “pop star”. But once reality bites and you realise you probably aren’t going to end up as David Beckham or Beyoncé many adults then go through life without really knowing the answer to this question. So it stands to reason many teenagers don’t know the answer either. And even if they do know, many have no idea what they need to do to achieve their dreams.

Choosing the right career, or understanding how to get the skills to secure the perfect job can be difficult but chose right and it can be the key to a lifetime of success, happiness and financial stability.

This week is National Careers Week, with events taking place across the country. Whilst it’s very much welcome that there’s a week shining the spotlight on careers, this just isn’t enough. It’s very much like the criticism levelled at Valentine’s Day. Shouldn’t we be showing our significant other we care every day? In the same way we need to be making conversations about careers part of the day-to-day. Not consigning it to one week per year.

To be able to make informed choices about their futures young people need to be able to access good quality careers advice and work experience. Sadly that just isn’t happening at the moment. A recent survey by UKCES found that work experience in the UK is ‘a lottery’, with some areas having less than 30% of employers offering work experience.

We also know careers advice in the UK is woefully inadequate. Research from City & Guilds found a third of all young people do not receive any careers guidance at all, denying them the opportunity to understand the wealth of choices available.

This patchy provision and poor quality of both work experience and careers advice can be partially attributed to a constant pressure on schools to focus on exam results and pushing learners down the route of a-levels and university.

Schools should instead be ranked on final outcomes. That is: getting into gainful employment.

Why are we educating our young people if not to help them get into fulfilling careers and helping to fulfil the needs of UK industry? It’s crazy so many employers still have to rely on overseas candidates to fill jobs when we have a pool of talented people desperate for the chance to land a great job right on our doorsteps. We’re failing our children.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a new story. When I was at school all those years ago I don’t remember receiving any careers advice at all. I learned more about the world of work from listening and talking to adults outside of school. But I was one of the lucky ones with parents who knew what options were out there for me.

We need a national programme which gives young people from all backgrounds the opportunity to meet people working in industries like engineering or construction where there is a skills shortage. If we arm students with valuable information we can help them to consider a career in a lucrative and challenging area where their skills would be in demand.

We also need to encourage employers to offer work experience so that young people get a real taste of the working world. This is particularly relevant now that Saturday jobs seem to be a thing of the past. Many years ago my first real job was working one night a week and one Saturday morning picking lettuce at the local farm. I haven’t become a lettuce farmer but this experience gave me a sense of independence and communication skills that proved to be more invaluable than I ever realised at the time. It’s sad that many young people no longer get this chance.

Nowadays there is so much more competition in the workplace, and I think there is more pressure on young people to focus solely on their academic achievements, rather than making sure they are rounded individuals and attractive to employers for their breadth of experience.

Technology can help with this. We know most teenagers are glued to their phones or tablets, so parents and schools should be encouraging them to spend a little time online researching future career options.  At City & Guilds we work with a company called MyKindaCrowd, who connect young students with the world of work by providing advice in careers clinics and setting challenges to encourage students’ ideas to flourish. This kind of interactive and creative environment is exactly the kind that’s needed to give young people the confidence to know what their future could hold.

I passionately believe it’s the duty of government, educators, family members and employers to help people young and old to achieve their potential. Giving them access to the information and experiences they need to answer the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and then when they know telling them to go absolutely for it and helping them understand how to get there.


Kirstie Donnelly is managing director of City & Guilds UK

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  1. Keith Holness

    Few people, it seems to me, are interested in the question of assessing kids’ aptitudes, talents and interests. I see a dangerous trend in attempting to fit kids into the alleged “local skills needs” square pegs.

    All this vocational careers advice often seems to be good enough for “other people’s kids”. Education professionals usually get their own kids onto a different track and a wider landscape.