Cultural Influences and Youth Employment

I’ll start this post with a few observations…

When a TV programme or news outlet wants to discuss climate change do they call on a scientist or meteorologist? Someone who has done extensive research?

No. They usually call on a journalist who has an opinion but little evidence to support it save for a few coincidences.

And when a TV programme or news outlet tries to discuss HS2 or a similar large scale engineering project do they call on an engineer or project manager who can bring such a topic to life?

No. They usually call on someone representing a countryside preservation or NIMBY pressure group.

Barely a day passes without warnings of a lack of STEM skills or concerns over how to get school leavers and graduates interested in studying STEM subjects.

Yet there is interest in automotive engineering – hardly surprising given how glamorous, sexy, iconic and financially rewarding Formula 1 appears from our print, broadcast and online media.

What is the first adult TV drama to which children are usually exposed?

Soap operas. Almost everyone in Wetherfield or Albert Square is either self employed or works in a micro business. They are very adaptable too – comfortably switching from market trader to estate agent or managing a kebab shop, seamstress to secretary or hairdresser. Anyone having full time employment with a large employer will almost certainly be public sector – teacher, fireman, doctor, council official, market inspector.

I have recently taken part in a range of conversations and events that relate to either self employment, youth enterprise or the shortage of skills. At each one we hear statistics of how our 18-24 year olds want to start their own businesses, or how they favour career advancement over pay and benefits, or even how they would rather be actors than engineers.

Thing is, its almost always been that way. My peers, many years ago now, all wanted to start their own businesses rather than work for large corporates. Even at a large private school (yes, I’ll admit to going to one of those) most of us wanted to work for ourselves not someone else. No-one surveyed us though.

Some of this comes from our influences during adolescence, the crucial socio-economic, cultural and family influences between 13 and 18 that help to shape values and aspirations. Certainly today’s 18-24 year olds have had 6 years of global recession, banking crash, bonus scandals, shareholder revolts, Fred the Shred, MPs expenses and the like, not to mention watching the parental generation lose their jobs, work harder for less for fear of redundancy, possibly embrace self employment, or suffer a humiliating job hunt. Little wonder that they seem to turn their back on big business.

They have also had a few years of being told that there aren’t enough graduate jobs available, that they may have to be baristas or stack shelves to prove that they can get up in the morning, that the job for life is now a life of jobs – little surprise that being your own boss may sound attractive. More a case of self sufficiency than entrepreneurial zeal.

And as I mentioned earlier, the first role models that most have of working arrangements (aside from parents) will be from the TV and popular culture, and those tend to be self employed, adaptable and resilient. It starts early too…I’m sure Bob the Builder’s flexibility, creativity and resourcefulness beats Postman Pat’s comfortable, though repetitive, job.

Most youngsters are motivated by positive role models, their cultural influences often pointing the way to how they see their opportunities. For many this will be determined by what they observe and experience, and the influences they see the rest of society embrace, hence my point about the way we present the areas that we want them to be inspired by. The lack of interest in studying certain subjects, and the interest in doing things for yourself, is a much wider, cultural issue – not one just for schools but for all of us.

Having said that, we don’t just want engineers, scientists and carers who are there for lack of anything else…we really need engineers, scientists and carers who want to do that. Who are passionate about it. Who see the value of it and the importance to society as a whole. Who feel inspired to do it.

There is no perfect fungibility of labour, hence a raft of people going to university to study engineering or medicine when they have no passion or real interest in the topic, but see it as a way to get a job, is unlikely to be the complete answer either.

As the current TV ad for #toyotahybrid urges…don’t start a career you feel no love for

Can we change that…

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