This month’s guest blogger is Stephen Isherwood, Chief Executive of the Institute of Student Employers (ISE, formerly AGR), the UK’s professional association for member employers in search of top talent, offers some wise words to fellow parents about how best to help your child avoid going down the wrong career rabbit hole!


Alice in Wonderland: Which way should I go?

Cat: That depends on where you are going.

Alice: I don’t know.

Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.

The same advice applies to your child’s career. Which is why students that don’t like to think about work and careers, that assume work will work itself out, often struggle to get the kind of job they want. And the world of work can be confusing. Did you know that 80% of employers don’t mind what students study? This means that your qualifications won’t always determine what job your child will end up doing.

So what do employers care about?

Google employment skills and an almost infinite number of lists will appear, often written in HR speak that can be difficult to decode.

To put it simply, employers want four things:

  1. People who can get things done with and through others. This is teamwork.
  2. Practical intelligence. Knowing how to solve real world problems and deliver meaningful work will be valued more that pure knowledge.
  3. Work ethic. People who will work hard, even when under pressure and the task can be difficult or even dull.
  4. Interest. Passion is an overused word but employers want you to care about their business, they want you to show you have an interest in what you think want to do during your working hours.

Different sectors and different employers look for different traits. Engineers need a different mix of knowledge and skills to a marketer. This doesn’t mean your child has to know exactly what they want to do for a job before choosing a study path, though in some cases this really does matter. But they can always be getting experiences that develop a range of skills employers would be interested in.

Let’s take the accountant. While it may be hard to get direct accounting experience, most clubs, societies, charities need someone to look after the money. And quality newspapers have finance related stories in them every single day. So someone who doesn’t enjoy budgeting and reconciling their football team’s finances, is bored by the business pages, is unlikely come the Monday morning to be motivated when poring over spreadsheets – or happy. That’s assuming they’d get there. Because recruiters are pretty smart at spotting those who can’t demonstrate any interest in the job they are applying for. More importantly, it’s likely they will interview someone who does care.

The unexamined life is not worth living’ said Socrates.

Many employers I work with meet many students who can’t talk about themselves. Common is the tale of the interviewer, making small talk on the way to the exit with a candidate who has just done badly, that candidate who couldn’t answer a single question about how they work with others then explains that they are off to their part-time job at a supermarket, the job where they have just been promoted to shift supervisor.

Thinking and testing

Make sure you help your child understand their strengths, interests and passions. Life abounds with opportunities to get experiences that show a young person is the kind of individual an employer wants to invest in. Want to know why using group coursework as an example of teamwork in an interview is a bad idea? It’s because students were told to do it and every other same student has the same experience. Much better to talk about a situation they put themselves into, a challenge they set themselves, a difficult situation faced. And it’s OK to admit mistakes too. Candidates I’ve interviewed who said they’d never got it wrong were either lying or hadn’t pushed themselves. We often learn most from the things that went wrong.

We all know the perfect careers trajectory doesn’t really exist and nor does the job for life. Speak to anyone with a bit of experience and they’ll be able to talk about the jobs they hated, the wrong turn they took, the boss they didn’t get on with. But your kids are less likely to take a wrong turn or spend too long on the wrong track if they spend some time thinking about who they are and what they really want, take responsibility for their work and get the experiences to take a path they have taken the time to consider before they set off on it.