Chris Webb, HE Careers Professional, Sheffield Hallam University

The concept of identity

Careers Adviser. Writer. Volunteer. Runner. Reader. Listener. Partner. Brother. Son. Friend.

In an era where we are often defined by tags and labels that help us fit into the online world that we occupy both professionally and personally, the concept of identity can be a potentially thorny subject, particularly for young people growing up at a time where how we are perceived is not always completely within our control, as Kate Eichhorn noted in a recent article for the New Yorker.

With so many of our professional and personal interactions now taking place via social media platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, are we all making the most of leveraging our identities to support with our career planning and development?

As a starting point, it is worth noting that many careers teams, support services, charitable organisations and employers around the country are already using the concept of identity to help young people with their career development or attract individuals to employment opportunities – for employers, this may be an increased focus on diversity within their recruitment strategies or the use of strengths, motivations or values-based interviewing practices, whereas for careers teams and support services, this often involves helping students to understand their identity in relation to their cultural wealth, protected characteristics or position within an underrepresented group, as seen in initiatives like the WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) People Like Me/My Skills My Life campaign, or the recent project from the University of Nottingham that focused on increasing aspiration for female engineering students.

However, as Dr. Iwi Ugiagbe-Green noted in her recent keynote presentation at the AGCAS Annual Conference 2019, identity in a professional context is far from a linear concept and is something that requires the individual to take into account myriad variables that change over time, including personal motivations, cultural, economic and social capital, as well as what the labour market desires from its participants.

With the above in mind, it is easy to see why utilising the concept of identity is both central to our career development but equally extremely challenging to address, particularly given that as individuals we are constantly in the process of developing as both professionals and people.

In universities, with students often informed of the significant presence of employers and recruiters on social media, there can be understandable anxieties about how to represent yourself online, particularly for individuals who are not regular users of any social media platform.

The prevalence of ‘Googling’ as a first port of call for careers information can also lead web users to potentially suspect advice on the subject of professional identity, whether in the form of cookie-cutter CV templates or ‘must-read’ articles on setting up a LinkedIn profile, all of which can lead individuals to ‘play it safe’ in relation to the way they present themselves to employers.

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While employers and research organisations continuously tell us of the high industry demand for skills like Communication, Creativity and Confidence, this message does not necessarily filter down to young people, who in my experience often neglect to emphasise their involvement in opportunities like volunteering, charity work and the organisation of extra-curricular clubs and societies, despite this being something employers report that they are keen to hear about from applicants.

Whether this is due to the significant focus on academic accomplishments present within the secondary education system or a lack of understanding about how others can perceive you on social media from a professional rather than personal standpoint, many individuals (young and old) undersell themselves in relation to their involvement in extra-curricular pursuits, when often these experiences could be the very things that help them stand out in the eyes of employers.

Increasing confidence when approaching conversations about identity

So, how can we increase confidence for ourselves and others when approaching conversations about identity? One approach that many careers practitioners take is to encourage individuals to see themselves as the product of all of their experiences and not simply their education or work history.

Helping individuals to connect their passions to their career development may not only enhance career exploration and broaden their view of opportunities within the labour market but will also support the practice of speaking with enthusiasm about themselves, an area that many people find understandably challenging.

Whether it is waxing lyrical about the discipline and leadership skills that have been instilled through working as a karate instructor or the effective communication, patience and empathy needed to work as a volunteer with the Samaritans, the causes and values that make up someone’s identity can provide a strong foundation for helping individuals to define themselves to employers in an authentic and engaging way.

For individuals who feel that they do not have a lot going on in their personal lives, conversations about identity can also lead to discussions on career ambitions and potential short-term goals to address this situation, for example taking small steps to enhance personal satisfaction and future employability, such as learning a new skill or taking up an activity or hobby they have always been interested in trying.

Identity is clearly not a concept that can ever be approached as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ ideology – many individuals feel the need to keep their professional and personal lives entirely separate in order to maintain a healthy work-life balance, whereas others yearn to develop a career where they can truly be themselves in the work they undertake, something a friend recently informed me that she had discovered through self-employment after a decade of career exploration.

By encouraging ourselves and the individuals we work with to reflect carefully on the concept of identity, both in relation to ourselves and the employers and organisations we interact with, we can begin to assess career opportunities on a more holistic level and appreciate not only our own agency in this process but also enhance our ability to articulate the things that make us unique as individuals, a skill that has clear benefits for everything from job interviews to online dating!

Although social media may have partially limited the control that we have over how others perceive us, starting a conversation about the importance of identity can open up valuable discussions about how we see ourselves and what steps we might take to ensure that others see us the way we wish to be seen, both professionally and personally.

Chris Webb , HE Careers Professional, currently working for Sheffield Hallam University but writing in a personal capacity.

A registered career development professional and member of the Career Development Institute (CDI) and Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS), Chris has previously worked for education institutions in secondary education, FE and HE as a Careers Leader, Careers Adviser, Functional Skills Tutor and Study Programme Coordinator.

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