David Dewey, CEO of Shortlist.Me

The education sector, like many other industries, was put under immense pressure due to the coronavirus pandemic, with lots of challenges – and opportunities – arising as a result.

With a greater focus than ever on the employability of students, there is no denying that 2021 will see even more emphasis on what Further Education (FE) institutions can do to help boost pupils’ prospects, whether applying to university or trying to secure a work placement. 

David Dewey, CEO of employment-readiness platform Shortlist.Me, shares his thoughts on what the landscape is shaping up like in 2021.

Setting the scene

There has been nothing normal about the past 12 months across the education sphere – and really for society as a whole – especially where the issue of employment has been concerned.

Thousands of people across the country have faced redundancies and furlough, and as a result, the UK job market has taken a massive hit – with a considerable imbalance of the number of vacancies available compared to the high volume of applications.

But this has only increased the pressure and expectation on FE and Higher Education (HE) establishments to better ready their students for the even-more-competitive world of work.

Yet while society as a whole has been impacted, it is the nation’s younger generations which are experiencing greater difficulties around employment. In fact, a recent BBC article revealed that the country’s overall unemployment rate had reached 4.8%, and that the rate among young people, aged between 16-24, is far higher than this at 14.6%.

With this in mind, it is no surprise that improving students’ employability and job-interview readiness is an item high on the agenda of careers services.

Accelerating a digital shift

While the pandemic has presented many difficulties and challenges for the education and careers industry, it also brought with it many advancements and opportunities – namely driven and enabled by the use of technology. 

With more online learning, virtual assessments and video calls taking place in 12 months than in the last few years alone, it is fair to say that Covid-19 has massively accelerated the pace and adoption of digital tools – in both the classroom and careers offices.

But this upsurge in technological reliance is not a new concept. If anything, it is arguably better aligned with the wants and needs of the younger generations – specifically Millennials and Generation Z – who are ‘digital natives’ and prefer, and are more accustomed to, a self-service element to their daily lives.

So, while technology may not be anything novel in 2021, the rate of adoption looks set to continue at this fast-tracked pace.

And, it is in this respect that there looks to be no going back to how things were before – not only for safety reasons in the current circumstances, but equally for careers professionals to create efficiencies of scale, helping to reach more students than ever before.

As a result, it is fair to say that technology will play an ever-greater part in helping to eliminate the disconnect between education and employment, and also foster greater diversity and inclusion in education as a whole.

While the current circumstances are not ‘normal’ – with restricted travel and socialising – and more emphasis and reliance on video-led communications, technology has always been a key player, even before the pandemic. For instance, while before, students who had no means of independent travel or income were unable to attend job interviews or employment skills training days at the other end of the country, this barrier has now been lifted – thanks to technology.

In 2020, an increasing number of red brick and challenger universities diverted their attention to technology as an enabler – a tool to help their careers services not only reach more students quickly, but also harness the power of experiential learning.

And this will continue to be a key player in the coming year.

If students are able to record themselves in an online interview setting and receive real-time feedback on how to improve on their interview skills – either by their peers or careers advisers – they will feel more empowered to advance their own employability skills, as well as more accustomed to the real-life pressures of an employer assessment.

And with mounting job competition, it is exposure such as this which will really help to make candidates stand out. 

It’s therefore important to note that while digital solutions should not and will not replace the human careers specialists, they will work with them to strengthen the support they provide.

In fact, a hybrid approach of traditional careers service and technology-led methods will undoubtedly be leading the way over the next 12 months, to help not only the education landscape recover and attract more students, but assisting the UK’s in reviving its job market.

Prioritising social mobility and academic alignment

Whether college students are looking to apply for university or enter the world of work straight away, careers services play a vital role in helping them get to their next destination.

And with an increased focus on social mobility and academic alignment set for 2021 too, this will arguably be one of the greatest priorities on the academic agenda.

For a number of years employers have been trying to attract students from a range of universities – especially challenger establishments – not only to help diversify workforces but also to disseminate job prospects beyond red brick institutions. And as a result, this trend has naturally been filtering down into the FE arena too. 

In order to meet the requirements of employers and make the national employment landscape more socially inclusive, an increasing number of universities are also mirroring this and are wanting to attract a wider range of college students – from different geographical areas, cultures, and ethnicities.

So, no matter whether college-goers want to enter straight into the job market, via an apprenticeship or internship, or continue their educational trajectory, the requirement is the same – both routes are akin to entering the world of employment, and students must be au-fait with what it means to be employment-ready. 

As a result, FE careers advisers are not solely focused on preparing a student for university, they are equipping them to be employable – knowing how to present themselves in an interview and recognising whether they have answered the question or not. 

An imbalance in supply and demand

There’s no denying that the UK job landscape and wider economy will take a while to recover, but unifying education and employability even more in 2021 will be a pivotal part in helping to make this a reality.

But while this recipe of fewer jobs and increased demand is full of unpredictability – and may feel demotivating or daunting to today’s college students – that is one fundamental reason why next-level FE careers support will be at the fore more than ever over the coming year.

The relationships students build with FE professionals sets them up for the next chapter in their lives, as they are arguably the last academic individuals to truly know a pupil before they are in front of an employer.

For example, if students opt for a work placement after college, they will be exposed to the job market straight away, while if the university path is chosen, they may have a part-time job or year in industry, during the first or second year of their degree. At this point, however, HE professionals do not have the same knowledge about a student – their abilities and ambitions – as their FE counterparts, as they have spent less time with them.

No matter whether the vocational or educational path is chosen though, the skills and advice college-goers can glean from their teachers and careers coaches, is paramount in leveraging them successfully into employment.

So, it’s clear that while there is a sense of duty now among FE careers experts to prepare their students as much as possible, given the current decimation of the UK employment backdrop, this will be further augmented as the following months unfold. 

It goes without saying that bridging the gap between education and employment has never been more critical and will not only help to drive true diversity and inclusion forward, but it will also contribute to ensuring our next generations are equipped to meet the demands of employers.

David Dewey, CEO of Shortlist.Me – an employment-readiness solution that transforms the way mock online assessments are facilitated.

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