My Careers Story: Russell George

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I think it’s worth saying at the outset of this blog that it will be anecdotal and based on my own career journey through different CEIAG roles. Those readers who have visited my own blog over the years or have met me will, I hope, testify that I have always endeavoured to place my own experience in the context of the wider data that swirls around the CEIAG landscape so to try to see the wood beyond the trees but this post, for good or ill, purely relies on my own experience.

For over 15 years now I have worked in Work Experience Coordinator/Careers Adviser/Leader/Team Leader/General “what next” roles in Secondary, Further Education and, since this summer, Higher Education settings. This doesn’t make me special, plenty of colleagues will have done the same and I’m not here to advocate that this is the career template for practitioners to aspire to, but, I hope, it does give me a perspective on the different challenges for practitioners to overcome and the professional satisfactions to be had across the phases.

In the mid-2000s I was working in secondary schools in Luton as a mentor tasked with supporting different cohorts of young people and found that more and more of my work was concentrating on “what happens next.” Visits to Universities, Colleges and local employers were becoming a more fundamental tool of my motivational toolkit to build a professional relationship with young people and then go onto catch up with them on their progress in school. This led me to, bit by bit, taking on responsibility for work experience, employer visits into school, Year 11 progress evening, 1:1 careers appointments, the full Careers enchilada which, in turn, sparked me into studying for my Level 6 Guidance qualification.

So, my story meant that I was fortunate to be already known in the school and had built working relationships with (some of) the teaching staff and some useful external links. This helped to build a “snowball” effect of Careers provision more quickly across different subjects and get things going that become expected, annual events in the school calendar than might otherwise be the case. An ability to initiate provision and make it happen is so important for a school Careers Leader. Much of my programme was suggested and discussed in brief, enabling conversations that don’t tend to happen with such regularity in FE and HE. The smaller scale of secondary schools (usually both in geography and staff numbers) means that those kind of exchanges are much more likely to naturally happen. A quick catch up at the back of a morning assembly, a passing check with a Head of Year in a busy corridor at lesson change over or a shared break duty are all spaces in which stuff can get workshopped and approved. Working with colleagues in HE and FE is much more planned, meetings over coffees or Zoom have to be scheduled and happenstance conversations are much less frequent.

Reflecting on my time in schools, the careers work I did that I think achieved a positive impact for more pupils was activity that broadened horizons of the young people. Sector themed breakfast meetings, short lunchtime “Intro to” talks, meet and greet type sessions more regularly achieved solid feedback and students would bounce up to me in the corridor weeks after still talking about one of the employers that impressed them. Employers who came into school perhaps for their first interaction with the education system for a long time would respond to follow up emails keen to be more engaged with other activities. Sure, there are secondary students who have a clear route planned for themselves and those who appreciate much more detail about their options with targeted visits to specific employers or industries but, generally, any provision that highlighted the wide range of stuff out there beyond the school gates landed strongly.

When I moved into FE I learnt quickly at my own expense that you have to offer something different to teaching colleagues to add value to their curriculum. FE teachers are closely linked to the vocational area of their subject, many will still be practicing in their field so your electrical installation tutors might still be running a contracting firm, your hairdressing tutors will also be a hairdresser for private clients, your catering tutors will be running professional kitchens serving the public on site. Careers practitioners in FE are not the sole gatekeepers to the outside world that they can be viewed as in secondary and subsequently your advice and guidance does not carry the same weight of respect as a carpenter or painter or adult care tutor who have significant experience in their area. In FE your offer for different vocational areas needs to be nimbler and more tailored. Different departments might want support with courses changers early in the new academic year, others might ask for University application sessions or your marketing team will want you to support with school visits. Essentially, your menu of services must be all encompassing but also agile and communicated well enough that colleagues can select exactly what they want support with.

Client wise, I found the great joy of FE to be the sheer diversity and what that meant for my working days bouncing from sessions with Level 1 Construction onto Foundation Degree Psychology groups to adult Access to HE groups and from 1:1s with under 16 school refusers before welcoming an experienced mid-career changer through the door. FE really does test the full scope of the practitioner’s toolkit from working every angle to gain the confidence of a reluctant teen in a 1:1 to winning the attention of a hard to impress Hair & Make Up group so that they write something (anything!) on their CVs, your presentation, interpersonal and guidance muscles really do get a workout. I would recommend FE to any practitioner considering a change of post or wanting to change-up their practice.

This summer, I’ve moved into a HE setting at a time when COVID19 is still affecting student experience so any lessons I’m learning need to be taken in that context but what is clear is just how hard the service has to work to achieve good levels of student engagement across our activities. An Adviser in HE can never be complacent that engagement will just magically occur, and students and graduates will just automatically turn up at any event, virtual or in-person. Buy-in has to be achieved using all of the communication and marketing heft you can muster which also puts pressure to not over promise on impact. This places a greater emphasis on the Careers practitioner to initiate outreach and collaboration with academic staff so you can’t be shy, and you have to confident what you’re offering will add value.

Clients are (quite rightly) clear in the support they want and they expect a high standard of knowledge of graduate recruitment and their specific sector but interactions with International students can also cover the fundamentals of job search and application for the UK labour market so the range of skills a practitioner needs is still broad. A common thread between all these stages is that Alumni are a huge help to careers practitioners but at HE there seems to be an added relevance to the journeys and experiences they can contribute, perhaps because it’s so much closer to their audience’s next steps that a graduate’s story carries just a little more weight.

I’m absolutely still in soak it all up like a sponge mode so there is lots to take in and can’t wait to see what a whole academic year brings in HE. While I’ve known lots of colleagues who have moved into new roles across the different strands within CEIAG, I do think it’s a fair reflection to make that, throughout the sector, there is a wariness in how professional skills and knowledge might transfer across the client bases. Tasking practitioners from the different phases to communicate more with each other to realise the common trends we all face is a difficult mission when confronted with the demands on time we all have but online networks, forums such as the CDIs Community of Practice, social media and traditional in real life events all have huge value to enable those conversations.

You can hear more from Russell through his own blog, RussellCareers or find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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