How can students prepare for working life?

A shift in University mindset towards providing self-awareness programmes would help improve student employability, says Jodie Rogers

Is employability about turning up with a strong relevant CV and bags of confidence and trusting that the rest will follow? Or is it really about the translation of our educational and life experience to date into unique characteristics, willing attitudes and useful skills? Employers in all types of industry and most types of role require self-starters, problem-solvers and do-ers.  But how do we develop and finesse that in our emerging graduates?

More to the point, how should today’s students thoroughly prepare themselves for working life? Are they clear about how and why they should? It seems not. Too many students whom I meet have fallen into some strange black hole between education and employment. They fell either because they didn’t make preparations for life beyond exams, or because what they did have planned fell through and they had no back-up, or because their University didn’t prepare them to prepare themselves.

Not enough help…

But whose job is this preparation? Family, tutors, careers departments? Or is it the job of employers to spell out what the working world is like and what new starters should bring to the table?

I think that preparing students for life beyond their degree course should become a bigger priority for all of us, especially for University management teams. As Edinburgh University recently put it, it’s a University-wide responsibility and an ongoing developmental process. The rigour of academic study and learning for learning’s sake is valuable and some would argue that’s the nub of it, but many undergraduates find it hard to think and plan ahead or recognise what ‘employable’ really means, let alone how to ‘become’ it. They are overwhelmed by both choice and competition, and we need to help them.  The young people I’ve coached, inside and outside the University setting, are frequently insecure, anxious and misguided about what awaits them in the employment world.

Preparing students for life beyond their degree course should become a bigger priority for all of us, especially for University management teams

Even highly confident students need to beware of the trap. Many self-assured, determined graduates who prioritise money and status over meaning and sense of purpose soon find themselves trapped and unhappy. Those same students often have misguided expectations about what they can deliver to the workforce, or are looking for short wins. I’ve coached many young people who automatically want management jobs, not graduate jobs. They feel they should be able to skip a couple of levels of necessary groundwork.

Then there are those who have no idea what to aim for, mainly because they have no idea what suits them. And that’s because they didn’t put the time into finding out. Their school didn’t offer much beyond a week in a bank and some job-sifting tools, and the University career service was an optional extra, not an integral part of the degree experience.  Many emerging graduates end up choosing a path that won’t ever bring them fulfilment because it’s so out of line with their own values, beliefs and motivations.

Know yourself

There is another way. The core ingredient that’s missing for me in the degree years is the development of self-awareness: permission and time to reflect on who you are, what you’re about and how you’re going to take responsibility for making your life happen.  Currently (except in pioneering Universities like MIT, Stanford and the Berklee campus in Valencia, Spain), it seems that undergraduates aren’t encouraged to take time to reflect on what would suit them.  Yes, careers departments have website guidance, motivational talks, 1:1 sessions, access to alumni and possibly links with a few employers, but it’s not quite enough.

Universities need to work more closely with the professional development world to provide students with a framework (running alongside degree study) containing time and space for them to reflect on what matters to them, what inner purpose they want to serve and what external, world problems they want to be a part of solving, however big or small.

That, for me, is where the career-seeking journey should begin. Once some of those questions are closer to being answered and once various fields of work have been explored by connecting with those already in that field, then the ingredients of employability begin to emerge.

The core ingredient that’s missing for me in the degree years is the development of self-awareness: permission and time to reflect on who you are, what you’re about and how you’re going to take responsibility for making your life happen

A survey of 75 members of the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council rated self-awareness as the most important competency for leaders (and future leaders) to develop. Several companies I work with are already investing considerably in their employees‘ personal development. Unilever, for example, wants all individuals (from admin staff to VPs) to know what their ‘purpose’ is, because they know employees are more engaged and have greater levels of satisfaction when working ‘on purpose’. In other words, what is it about you, your strengths and your individuality that you can bring into everything you do?

If students can come to employers with this groundwork and insight already in place, they will stand out and immediately become more attractive as a potential recruit. As for actual work experience, many universities are doing a good job in finding committed, productive, ongoing links with employers, but far more responsibility needs ultimately to be taken by the students for getting creative in seeking fulfilling work. To get to that point, they need a firmer steer from career advisors, and ideally from the professional world itself.

Stronger partnership

Indeed, why not have students work with coaches who are already guiding professionals? They’re in an ideal position to demystify the question ‘What do employers want?’. They know exactly what they want and they’re already working to deliver it. If we introduced this service to students pre-professionally, it may just have the impact we all want.

It may even tackle the worrying transactional attitude that prevails. Students expect that employers AND Universities ‘owe’ them somehow because of the sums they’ve invested.  It’s not a new feeling, but its prevalence is influencing how they’re approaching (or not approaching) their own employability. But being employable often doesn’t happen on its own.

I believe the professional success of an individual is directly proportional to the time and energy spent (or not) on their personal journey. Specifically, I mean true self-awareness, a clear understanding of their strengths, what makes them different, where they get their satisfaction from and importantly what difference they want to be a part of.

The professional success of an individual is directly proportional to the time and energy spent (or not) on their personal journey

This field of development is not top of mind for students, so it largely rests on the shoulders of the Universities to lead the way. I predict that those who proactively invest and support students in this area are likely to attract not just more students but also employers. A graduate is far more likely to be a curious, analytical, can-do self-starter if they’ve chosen a field or role that suits who they are as well as the skills they’ve gathered. And that investment, by default, nurtures a more accountable and responsible individual. This is exactly what employers are looking for.

This in itself will also be a step towards reducing the blame culture that causes young people to think it’s someone else’s fault If there isn’t a great job waiting for them with few or no barriers to entry.  

We need a more enlightened approach to developing ‘life skills’ of students and that means we need to prepare them for professional life by investing in their personal development. There are experts whom the task can be outsourced to, but why not own it and bring that whole ‘bridge’ between academia and the workforce in-house?

Jodie Rogers is a self-empowerment coach, mentor and speaker who helps individuals facing career crisis. She is a visiting professor of professional development coaching at Berklee College of Music’s campus in Valencia. For 10 years she worked at a leading multinational marketing company and continues to advise firms on teambuilding and employee engagement.