From education to employment

Lessons from life enhance young lives

Recent figures released by The Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) issued a damning report at their annual conference in July showing that students graduating in 2010 are facing a 6.9% drop in vacancies, following the 8.9% decline in 2009.

The drop in vacancies has caused a corresponding increase in the number of applications for each much sought-after job — the average now stands at 69 for every vacancy, compared to 49 last year and 31 in 2008.

In a job market more competitive than it has been for thirty years, young people need to find new ways to stand out from the crowd. They must develop skills and experience early to fast track their development and ultimately make them a more attractive proposition to employers benefiting from a ‘buyers market’.

By encouraging students to supplement their studies with practical, life enhancing experiences, such as course trips, travel and volunteering, young people will not only be happier, more confident, better prepared, and more successful in their studies, they will also be more employable.

The feedback I have gathered after many years organising school and college trips to the Himalayas, strongly supports this hypothesis. I am in little doubt that engaging in practical experiences outside of study, in the real world, is critical for a young person’s development, with advantages that not only benefit their studies, but also their capacity to find fulfilling employment, as well as their career progression thereafter.

A recent example of this process actually comes from a higher education trip we organised last year. It is important to point out at this stage, that the ‘educational level’ of the students in question is largely irrelevant. The benefits of ‘life education’ are universal for all young people, whether they are studying for their A-levels, embarking on vocational studies or preparing for their degree.

At the start of 2010, we organised an expedition to Mount Everest for a group of medical students from the ‘Wildema Medical Society’ at the University of Edinburgh. The 15 strong contingent led by Simon Beggs, a fourth year medical undergraduate, set out to test the effects of high altitude on the human body. The study was part of a wider research project conducted by the NHS and University Medical Department in 2008, to assist in the treatment of life threatening conditions such as strokes and critical lung disorders.

The two and half week expedition was the first opportunity the students had to run, manage and lead their own research programme, free of the confines of their syllabus or tutorship of their professors. The students planned every element of the expedition, from accommodation and budgets to the research study itself. Responsibility for the success of the trip, and the safety of the group, lay on their shoulders.

The expedition taught the group how to lead, be self-reliant and ultimately take responsibility for their own actions. Important interpersonal skills were also developed through interactions with Nepal’s medical fraternity, as well as knowledge sharing, team work and acquiring and integrating new skills.

Towards the end of the trip, the students visited a Nepali health centre near Lukla at the base of Mount Everest. It was fascinating to learn new medical techniques developed through years of working in extreme, high altitude environments. It was clear that despite previous misconceptions, and even prejudices, the students could learn as much from the Nepali approach to medicine, as Nepal could learn from them.

The students returned to their final year of study refreshed, full of confidence, and with new skills they could use to enhance their studies. Simon commented following the trip: ‘Nepal was a real eye opener. We learnt more in two weeks that we could ever imagine. It gave us the opportunity to put our knowledge and expertise to the test, while experiencing new cultures and learning important life skills. When we returned to Edinburgh, everything changed.’

Individual or group volunteering trips bring similar benefits. ‘Village Home Stays’ in the Himalayas deliver long lasting benefits to young people either as part of their post school GAP year, or a summer trip during their studies. The Village Home Stay is a unique opportunity for young people to live and work in an authentic and often challenging Nepali village community.

The ability to be self sufficient in these surroundings is a critical lesson of life, and of huge, long lasting benefit to young people. Many Nepali villages are cut off and isolated from the world, without running water, electricity or any home comforts. Food is grown locally, water is transported by hand, and there is no plumbing or electricity. There is an incredibly strong connection with nature and the environment, a respectful, sustainable connection, something the west could learn a huge amount from.

The opportunity to interact with new cultures is fascinating and life changing – learning a new language, communicating and interacting with different people, negotiating and working together, builds confidence, leadership skills, and the ability to interact with people from all walks of life.

These skills not only benefit a young person’s studies. They instil a level of confidence and self worth that help during employment, and in dealing with the rigors and stresses of university and work life. Unfortunately traditional education is ill equipped to prepare us for many of these eventualities.

At university, FE college or six form college, many young adults leave home for the first time, and are expected to thrive. But many lack the skills to do so, because they have not had the opportunity to develop them. This can damage rather than build confidence.

The sooner ‘life skills’ can be learnt the better, and volunteering combined with travel provides an ideal platform to do so. The majority of further and higher education degrees, diplomas and courses rely too much on theoretical education, even those supposedly based on practical application. Colleges and schools must encourage their students to widen their horizons, look beyond their studies for new, more practical sources of intellectual and social nourishment. There is no better classroom or lecture theatre than life itself.

Oliver Margry, is managing director of OJM Travel, the ethical tourism operator

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