29 December 2014

Why over 50 is too late

I’ve been waiting to comment on this story and press release regarding a new UK government “fundamental reform” (promoted as a jolly, we can mend everything tale from the pre-Christmas bulletins, some might say), setting it aside from the hyperbole surrounding it and having read through the various responses posted on news outlets. It is so closely related to the trade union funded and freelance work I do and I wanted to scream when I first read what I felt to be a patronising, disengaged and ageist approach (what that the policy purports to stand against).

Here is the press release in full: Fundamental reform to fight ageism in the workplace: older workers’ scheme to tackle age discrimination. We are promised a “a world-leading new approach” so hold onto your hats blog-readers, what follows may shock you! 

Change on the way?

I regularly work with older adults in employment and (through SUL funded projects) adults in employment who are facing a very real possibility of redundancy in later life or after their career has been well established in a certain field. I read this new story and I was irritated; it highlights so many things that are wrong with how we perceive older workers and it highlights a lack of understanding of the importance of all age / adult career guidance and when it should take place. I'm going to try to be positive though…

In the BBC article, Esther McVey references “training in CV and interview skills, the internet and social media, as well as "career reviews" with an expert to identify skills from previous work and any training needs.”

An Expert is on the way! No mention of any external organisations or businesses in the policy or in any of the media reports so we shall wait to find out whether this Expert may be drawn from the membership of the CIPD or perhaps be an established HR professional, maybe a qualified career guidance counsellor or a representative from business. It can’t possibly be a civil servant on a secondment with a few weeks of training because it is going to be an Expert. 

OK, I did say I was going to try to be positive. I look forward to finding out when this policy is streamlined into practice whether it will it be delivered in sessions covering options such as career planning strategies, career changes, life journeys, retirement planning and using counselling techniques, addressing an individual’s perception of what is possible, drawing on their transferable skills, explaining the differences between hidden and open jobs, discussing labour market information? These are amongst the topics I cover with staff in the workplace when delivering employability skills and career planning workshops. Hey, I could be one of the Experts the government could employ to delivery these courses, because I’m doing it already. I even have qualifications and a proven track record in this role. But this isn’t an extended and rather obscure job application for the role McVey and her colleagues are creating. 


McVey says the policy is about tackling outdated views and stereotypes. Brilliant, I thought, when I first saw this in the headlines and read on, interested to find new approaches to inform my own work. Then we get to it: computer training. Yes, computer training! Imagine that! Because people over 50 can’t use computers! I don’t personally know anyone (and I’m including people who have been away from the labour market for a very long time) who is over 50 and of working age who can’t use a computer but I appreciate that there are people who can’t. However, while most over 50s (and indeed many people in their 20s, 30s and 40s?) might not be able to use a computer as well as a primary school aged child, I also know plenty of under 50s who can’t sew on a button, work out how to maintain or repair household appliances or boil an egg. Let's just think about it: in how many cases is “being unable to use a computer” the sole reason stopping someone getting a job? How many of your colleagues have little more than the basics and use Caps Lock instead of Shift when they need one capital letter? Knowing keyboard shortcuts isn’t the answer to everything.

There will be training on the internet and social media for those who need it. Social media can help you find employment opportunities and in specific fields a LinkedIn profile can get you a job. But this isn’t how the majority of people find work and it certainly isn’t the key to performing well in an interview or making the most of your existing skills on an application form. It is how the majority of people waste their hours away and spend their leisure time and for most the only bit of social media training you need is this: make your personal pages private and have a smart LinkedIn page if you want one because in this day and age, potential employers will Google you. If you have the ability to set up a facebook profile then you have the ability to make it private. I’ve just covered social media, for the majority of jobseekers, in two lines.

Tackling stereotypes

I have wandered off. What I really wanted to say was that my big issue with this policy isn’t with its yet-to-be-revealed delivery, it is with the wording surrounding it. Let’s look at McVey and Webb's statement:
As part of our long-term economic plan, our champions will tackle outdated views that older workers are somehow ‘past it’ so that more people get the security of a regular wage in 2015.
Yes, in a policy designed to steer employers and the workforce away from negative perceptions, they've used the term “past it”. One of the things I talk about in application writing and interview skills workshops is not to compare yourself to a negative idea but to compare yourself to something proactive and positive. 

Dr Ros Altmann, the Government’s new older workers champion’ goes a step further with the negative language: 
I’m so pleased the Government is going to do more to help these people, who are too often consigned to a scrapheap, jobs-wise, when they just need help to retrain or cope with modern job searching. Daily Mail Website*
A full-on image this time! Let’s all imagine a scrapheap and pull those over-50s out of it!

Could the government please stop using terms like past it” and “scrapheap” to describe older people who are out of work? It’s offensive and creates a negative image and perception of the 1.2 million person mass of out-of-work over 55s. 

My answer: (in-work) career information advice and guidance

Why do older workers struggle after they lose their jobs? It is simple. We do not support enough in-work employability training. If an older worker loses their job, they will find it harder to find a new job. There is no point treating the problem, if we do not research and tackle the cause of the problem. We can avoid sending folk to jobs A&E through a much cheaper and beneficial to all preventative lifestyle.

Workers are often told that the best place to find a new job is while you are in work. It is also the best place to develop an understanding of your career and employability. Workplaces should offer in-work employability training and career planning either via HR or through external agencies. We should ensure that people of all ages, not just those in target groups can speak to a careers adviser when they need to, or access employability skills training. We need a culture of lifelong career management. This is what the career guidance community promotes. We aren't regularly funded to do this though. If an individual wants to improve their employability skills or see a careers coach/adviser, they have to do it in their own time and more often than not at their own cost. 

I welcome that there will be more help for the out of work over 50s, but this isn’t a fundamental reform, a fundamental reform would see a much earlier intervention and in-work support for lifelong career planning. 


10 December 2014

Three well-timed reassurances, an ongoing aside and dinner parties

I’m currently sitting at a table in my local Sainsbury’s cafĂ© typing this blog post, while eating soup and keeping an eye on my son who is asleep next to me in his pram. This is pretty representative of how this particular mummy has been managing to maintain her own career around a baby-toddler since the start of term. I think he is a toddler now, if we go by the terms laid out in this guide.

[In one of my other lives, I’ve been trying to convey to employability course students that using examples of competencies in your personal life makes it easier to find examples in work/academic reflective practice so I am trying it out in this blog post myself >>> Teaching by example]

PhD year 1 semester 1 ends on Friday and unlike many PhD researchers, I’m about to spend a month working as much as I can, rather than resting up over the festive season and reading interesting books. I suppose the perk is that I get to eat mince pies as I go. My husband is about to start four weeks off work, using a mix of parental and annual leave which means I will be able to settle myself in front of my desk rather than try to keep my research brain ticking over by reading, note-taking and typing up ideas and trains of thought to later follow up whilst simultaneously building towers out of wooden blocks and making the most mundane of household tasks interesting to a small person. Multitasking: I’m the expert. Turns out you can paint a wall, entertain a baby and work out your ontological viewpoint all at once, if you can block out the headspace.

[Son has woken woke up so I am typing whilst feeding him lunch>>> Multitasking]

I’m a big fan of thinking time. I was at a conference last month and attended a presentation on resilience, where I learnt that resilient, high achieving people block out time for thinking. Let’s call this Reassuring Moment Number 1. When I write stories, I don’t just sit down with a blank piece of paper. When I write, I write quickly after months of thinking around my characters, plots and themes. If it isn’t straight in my head first then I cannot sit and draft and draft and draft. I think this is where I have struggled previously on academic courses. I’ve started too soon, before I really understood what I was doing. No danger of that this time round as thinking time has been enforced on me, on afternoon walks and during night-feeds. It has been a very hard first semester, mainly because of how difficult it has been managing all of our family commitments. In September I was “about to start a PhD” and given my only previous experience of doctoral study was two aborted attempts to do a PhD in creative writing, I didn’t really know what a PhD in Management would entail. I needed a good bit of time to work out the structures, timelines and approaches. I needed to do some thinking before typing.

[Son is now staring at two people having lunch next to us and is demonstrating that what other people are eating is always more interesting than what you are eating yourself. Son occupied (aka nosey-poking at others) means a window for writing >>> Time management]

Onto Reassuring Moment Number 2. Prof. Gillian Hogg visited our research workshop last week, and she mentioned how her PhD was in a different discipline to her undergraduate degree (I knew this was possible but I’d just not met anyone with an English to Management discipline switch) and how despite her rapid career ascent from researcher to professor, her children “still knew who she was.” Actually, let’s combine this moment with a selection of blogs and blog posts I’ve found in the last week (including the new Academic Motherhood and Tenure, She Wrote) . There are other academic mothers with young children out there! I have finally found some! What I have learned is that it is a damn sight more difficult in America; we definitely aren’t emigrating across the Atlantic. Poor maternity leave options, unpaid at that, just being the start of it. In short: it is possible to be a mummy and do a PhD. I knew this from the start, but I didn’t really have any evidence of it or any examples of people saying exactly how they manage the challenge. We all need role models. It is also much harder to do things in life compared to in theory (must remember this in research interviews).

[Son has just grabbed notebook off the table as bored of rice cakes, but I had already typed up the notes therein>>> Planning and organisational skills]

Prof. Hogg also said we should have a “dinner party sentence” for when we are asked about our PhDs. This couldn’t have been better timed with Christmas on the way. Although, despite me now living in a house with a downstairs toilet and an upstairs bathroom (I really am middle class now,aren't I?), we don’t have a table that could host more than two people (luckily the little one is still in his high chair and has his own tray) so it won’t be our own dinner party it’ll be getting said at. This sentence is useful as when asking about your PhD, people can either immediately change the conversation because they have no interest whatsoever in your research (fair enough, I’m the same on science) or ask us more and quite possibly start up a fruitful conversation.  Quite a few people have asked about what I am doing and I’ve waffled a bit. However, since it did come highly commended in the Heriot Watt School of Management and Languages poster competition last Friday (Reassuring Moment Number 3) and therefore demonstrates that what I’m doing does actually make sense outside of my head, I can now direct those with further enquiries to my Year 1 PhD poster. Several people have already remarked that “now they know what I am doing” which is good because more than anything my PhD needs to make sense inside and outside of academia/outside of my academic circle and discipline.

[Son now fully awake, full of food and throwing his already-leaky beaker around. Let’s go buy something for our tea tonight before the next wave of the storm hits>>> Basic survival skills, useful in all careers]

Oh and my dinner party sentence is… I’m researching why women, especially young women, choose to do apprenticeships and which apprenticeships they do/don't do...  I might tweak it after I find a festive party or two to go to.

5 December 2014

Poster Competition Success

It was the Heriot Watt School of Management and Languages annual poster competition today and
my poster came, rather unexpectedly, in second place for the first year group.

Here is the highly commended final version of my poster. This has been amended--a rather embarrassing typo I spotted at the last minute this lunchtime has been removed!

4 December 2014

Standing out or blending in

A brief post to record thoughts on two issues I’ve been thinking about this week:

What are the implications if a person thinks of themselves as a trainee or a learner rather than a student and where does an apprentice fit in amongst these titles?

 - What differences exist in experience and perception of a course of study between that which is embedded within a traineeship, internship or apprenticeship rather than as a standalone course?

Where this stems from is that I was recently talking to a representative from one of the armed forces about apprenticeships and he–quite interestingly–told me, “most of our trainees are apprentices, they just don’t realise.” I’ve been thinking about the idea that someone might well be in formal or fairly structured learning without realising it, admitting to it or it being made public knowledge. Going off to be a student at 16, 17 or 18 perhaps even dependent on the subject, isn’t always the “coolest” thing to do.*  This is something I want to explore further, the idea that we may have to hide our aspirations and ability. Much of this stems from my own background (researcher bias alert!).

Having come from “couldn’t be further removed from higher education” beginnings, I now have an undergraduate degree plus four postgraduate qualifications and I’m (hopefully) on my way to a doctorate. (Certificates that haven’t come without a struggle and at great cost, self-funded prior to my current studentship and one previous fee waiver. My higher education has come at far greater an expense than would be covered by the proposed new postgraduate loan figures hitting the news today).

The nature of my work and postgraduate higher education sees me now mixing with people who’ve been pushed to achieve their highest, often through private education. People sometimes presume that is where I come from, a well-educated academic background (not least, a senior careers adviser who once said to me, “It will have been like this when you mum was at university.”) I don’t come from a pushy, achievement-orientated background. I come from one of the most deprived and lowest achieving educational boroughs in the UK. My experience of secondary education could only really be described as years spent immersed in a culture of publicly denying your aspirations and pretending to be less clever than you are.

So why consider the relevance of this in relation to apprenticeships? Much of my concern around my research so far focuses on the general perception and place of apprenticeships, not least in relation to who “advisers” perceive as being appropriate for apprenticeships. As demand and competition are potentially increasing (debateable, and very much related to employer-workforce skills matching) are apprenticeships rising in status? Who are apprenticeships for?

Many years ago when I went to university, I remember a tale of a boy whose family threw him out for signing up for a university course, because they weren’t willing to support him in doing so. We hear about it so much, but is higher education always the best or acceptable goal? It seems to be on the surface, but I'm not convinced this is universally true. Are there some individuals for whom a job or an apprenticeship (perhaps in a certain field) that leads to a job, of greater value and kudos?

*On being “cool” I can certainly give an education related anecdote here from my own teaching experience. The older male students I’ve at taught the OU studying creative writing modules have often cited how they couldn’t admit to wanting to write when they were younger, or indeed publicly.