After A-levels: can we get over the careers advice gap?

The British Chambers of Commerce has argued that the Government places too much emphasis on exams. Betsy Kendall, COO of business psychology firm OPP, asks: how can employers and higher education institutes find out what motivates their future recruits beyond their exam results?

As the dust settles after another year of A-level results and students begin to map out their next move, the British Chambers of Commerce has called for a reduced emphasis on exams and hitting targets because it has "robbed" school leavers of the basic skills needed to succeed in the world of work. That may well be true, but isn't it equally important to acknowledge the careers advice gap that is also hindering many young people's chances of succeeding in work?

Unprepared for working life

In September 2012, a cross-party Commons education select committee pointed to a "worrying deterioration" in the standard of careers advice given to young people as a result of responsibility for in-school career guidance moving from local authorities to schools and colleges. The select committee recommended that all schools should publish annual careers reports and that the new National Careers Service should act as a quality control gauge to promote high standards and maintain them across all schools. And while the willingness to equip students with better careers advice certainly seems to be on the rise, the challenge of resourcing careers advice and engaging students in the process remains. While the focus on academic achievement is high, there is also often too little attention paid to the impact that personality plays in making the right career choices.

Although many universities now offer vocational courses that give students a better idea of what to expect when they enter the world of work, the majority of young people leave education with very little insight into possible career paths or the key interpersonal skills that, in addition to raw academic ability, will be necessary for them to embark on the appropriate career and get ahead quickly at work. In the current structure, it can be hard for universities to give in-depth, one-to-one advice to all their students that includes a granular analysis of how their personality will impact their job success.

Meanwhile, employers worry about how unprepared school leavers and graduates are, and how ill-equipped they can be for taking control of their career paths and longer-term development, although signs are that students are improving in this regard. The downside of our "Generation Y" world is that employers are much less likely to actively manage employees' careers for them - they expect individuals to be in the driving seat, to know themselves and to have a clear idea of what they want to achieve. This is all the more reason to equip students with this personal awareness while they are studying.

Proactive approach

Many educational institutions do take a proactive approach to preparing students for the world of work. The University of Surrey, for example, recently embraced training for their research engineers using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) psychometric tool. It has added invaluable assets to their undoubted academic abilities, such as enhanced interpersonal and leadership skills. The university says that the concept of MBTI type has become a central part of the researchers' vocabulary and working process.

For people who need help in discovering which careers they will find intrinsically motivating, there are other instruments available. OPP's 16PF Career Success Report, for instance, is specifically aimed at giving students good careers and personality-linked advice. It uses personality information to identify early career interests and maximise an individual student's "fit" with a given career or academic course. And for resource-stretched careers services, it can be administered en masse quickly and easily.

Awareness at all stages

While personality awareness can clearly help students entering the world of work, it is just as pertinent for those going on to further education. After all, choosing a college or university course that will interest and motivate you over time does not just amount to adding up the salary and practical benefits you will receive in the future, or even continuing down a path you have always imagined yourself on. Do young people at this crucial life stage also take their personality into account? Are they aware of their personality characteristics and how these could affect their satisfaction levels, both during and after the university whirlwind?

OPP's own research among current students found that 35% would choose a different course if given the chance to start again. We believe there is more work to be done in this area - but identifying the personality characteristics of students, alongside their motivation to study for a particular course, will help work towards improving a young person's career satisfaction and prospects.

Whichever way they approach it, institutions need to equip young people with business skills, open channels between students and employers and find a way to get students more involved in the process. There are professional, insightful psychometric tools out there to assist. Whatever their goals, institutions looking for a plan of action do not have to work in the dark.

The author: Betsy Kendall is chief operating officer of OPP Ltd.