It’s best to know where you’re going – and why

Some years ago I was working in a school running a Self Managed Learning project. In the group with which I was working there was a talented 13-year-old girl musician. She said that she would like to have a career as an orchestra musician. We looked at the life of an orchestra musician and also looked at some research on job satisfaction. The results of the research showed that orchestra musicians had a level of job satisfaction on a par with that of a prison warder.

The reasons for orchestra musicians possibly lacking satisfaction with their work appeared to be related to a number of factors. These included the fact that an orchestra musician is not able to be creative but has to follow the directions of the conductor and fit in with other people’s choices. Also the job often entailed living out of a suitcase because of the amount of travel and further that it was somewhat insecure.

My role was just to help the girl think through options, not to dictate what she should do about the evidence that we unearthed. This process applies to all of our work with young people. Another example was working in our College with a 14-year-old girl who thought she might like to be a vet. In order to understand the academic requirements she might need we researched various university websites. It was apparent that she needed to get three A’s in her science subjects at GCSE and so she had to think carefully about whether this was feasible.

In choosing a career it can also be valuable to experience it for real. I arranged for her to spend a week working in a vet’s surgery. The vet warned her that many girls seem to like the idea of being a vet because it was dealing with nice cuddly animals. However he pointed out that a lot of the work required coping with blood, urine and faeces and was often dirty and smelly. Further if you are to run a successful vet’s business you have to be good with stressed pet owners. He told me that he had never had any training at all in his degree on how to deal with human beings and yet this was crucial for his success. The girl did undertake a week in the vets and she sat in on operations and helped to clean up. At the end of the week was still keen on the possibility of a veterinary career.

Of course there can be young people who are quite unclear about career direction. In the programme I was running in a school for year eight boys who were in and out of exclusion, we had to start from basics. Having talked around various options, many of which might not be feasible, the students suggested that they were “more practical than academic”. We made a trip to the local further education college and the boys were quite impressed with the car body shop as well as carpentry and plumbing.

Some felt that working in a garage doing car repairs might be a possibility so we went to the local garage to see it in operation. The supervisor showed the students what was involved including pointing out that their image of a person with an oily rag and a spanner operating under the car was far from the truth. He showed how, for instance, electronics were now so important for the workings of any vehicle. He also talked about the need for anyone coming into the trade to get a technical qualification.

One of the boys in the group became quite keen on the possibility. Previously he had often been sent home from school due to his bad behaviour. However he couldn’t see what the problem was as he would sit at home playing computer games and watching the television and as far as he was concerned enjoying himself compared to the mugs in the school being bored.

At the end of the programme we had a meeting with the principal who heard from the boys in general on what they had achieved. He asked this particular individual why he was now taking an interest in science, maths and English when previously he had shown no interest in any subject. The boy explained that he could now see that he could have a career and that he needed to get qualifications if he was going to do well. He could now get a sense of having a good life after school when previously he had been pessimistic about this.

There are some important points from these anecdotes. It is crucial that young people have a sense of the options for their future life after school and also get some help in assessing the realism of any ideas that they have. I’ve often seen young people make poor choices about school subjects because they had no idea of the implications of their choices. The tragedy is that many graduates are in this category. A message for parents is that they have a crucial role in helping their children think carefully about choices.


by Dr Ian Cunningham.

First published in the Argus Educational supplement February 2017