A few concepts that I blogged about have been floating round in my head for a while. A recent discussion with a client made them come together.
She was talking about how her educational background in Africa had given her a particular mindset about career success. She explained that in her home country, passing a relevant professional examination pretty much guaranteed an appropriate job. When she came to the UK, it was a great shock to her that just having good qualifications was not enough. She had been surprised at the emphasis placed on demonstrating acceptable personal qualities and the importance of networking. It had taken her quite a while to overcome this mindset, and even now her initial reaction when faced with a career challenge was to think about what training she could obtain.
She was quite surprised when I told her that it wasn’t just people from outside the UK that suffered from this blinkered attitude to employability and career success.
‘You want to live like common people?’
There’s an interesting study (Greenbank & Hepworth, 2008; Greenbank, 2009) which looks at the career decision making of working-class UK university students. Obviously, this study lacks some robustness because the responses of working class students were not compared to those of students from other social groups. However, it tries to test out some common explanations for why students from poorer backgrounds are not as successful in their careers as their middle-class counterparts:
- Poorer students have to work during their courses and so do not engage with skill-developing extra-curricular activities, they are also limited geographically because of financial constraints (lack of economic capital)
- Poorer students have more limited social networks and so do not have access to the quality of information and breadth of role models that more affluent students do (habitus and social capital as well as community interaction)
- Students from working class background are said to place more value on direct experience, informal sources of information and less rational approaches to decision making. They are also assumed to be less ambitious, optimistic and future oriented.
Through conducting in-depth interviews with working class students, they discovered that although there was a certain amount of truth in assumptions 2 and 3, assumption 1 was not supported. It wasn’t because of financial constraints that working class students didn’t engage with extra-curricular activities; they didn’t see the point.
The students failed to participate in non-paid extra-curricular activities because they were unaware that graduate employers valued this type of experience. Furthermore, the students concentrated on achieving a ‘good degree’ to the exclusion of other activities because they believed this was pivotal to success in the graduate labour market.
The researchers also discovered that the geographical restriction was driven more by a psychological preference for staying close to family and friends rather than for financial reasons.
I wonder if the blinkered view of qualifications and the desire to rely on familiar contacts are linked? If you’re the first person from your social group to go to university, it’s like travelling to a foreign country. You don’t know what rules apply. If you have no available evidence from your experience that networking and transferable skills will get you a job, you will focus on something more concrete. If you are not confident about building relationships in new environments, you will be tempted to stick with the people and environs you know.
I don’t think that this is restricted to just working class students or people who come from different cultures. Perhaps it is linked to your inherited worldview, but it could just as well be to do with your personality.
‘But still you’ll never get it right’
This failure to recognise the importance of the social element of careers doesn’t just affect entry into the job market. In an earlier post, I described a study which found that graduates who thought about career success in terms of ‘achievement’ and ‘competence’ were less likely to be successful than those who construed it in terms of ‘social behaviour’ and ‘flexibility’.
It seems that once you start with the assumption that concrete qualifications and achievements are the route to career success, you carry on making the same mistake.
Do we help with our employability programmes? If we focus on teaching people how to write a good CV and perform well in an interview, then aren’t we just reinforcing the mistaken obsession with concrete means? Aren’t we entrenching rather than changing a potentially damaging mindset?
‘She had a thirst for knowledge’
Back to my client. She recognised that if she didn’t have a new way of thinking to replace her old mindset, she would keep reverting to her old ways. I fell back on the five virtues of Planned Happenstance but with a twist:
- Curiosity – be interested in people and what makes them tick
- Persistence – be prepared to give people several chances to see your potential
- Flexibility – be ready to change your mind about people
- Optimism – be determined to learn something from everyone you meet
- Risk-taking – if you don’t ask, you’ll never know if that person might have said yes.
‘I had to start it somewhere’
- Greenbank, P. & Hepworth, S. (2008) Working Class Students and the Career Decision-Making Process: A Qualitative Study. HECSU.
- Greenbank, P. (2010) Initiating Change in Career Decision-Making: An Action Research Approach. HECSU.
- Greenbank, P. (2009) An examination of the role of values in working-class students’ career decision-making. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 33(1), 33-44. DOI: 10.1080/03098770802638259
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