Many years ago, a group of GCSE students slunk into their school hall to watch a video outlining the routes their life might take in future. It was presented by the type of bouncy "youth" presenter programme-makers mistakenly believe 16-year-olds relate to, and featured a cacophony of colourful street signs. These were a visual metaphor: which road will you take?
The vast majority of students in that hall – myself included – weren't listening, because the vocational courses and work-based training options proffered didn't fit with our life plan. Students with the ability to go to university were expected to do just that. And they could – either for free or at very affordable rates. Moreover, while we were painstakingly coached through Ucas applications in the years that followed, and physically coached to university fairs and open days, advice on non-university applications was lacking.
But how much has changed? "I think we've got it slightly wrong with education," says Sarah Wrixon, whose PR company, Salix Consulting, employs young people – with and without degrees – in starter roles. "We're so focused on strings of A*s, we're not asking about the ability or ambition of each individual." Young people who know what they want and can articulate that, she says, are impressive.
Wrixon's eldest daughter Hattie, 19, is one such school-leaver – and she is now, happily, six months into an apprenticeship. "I was definite about the direction I wanted to take," she says. "I had an interview with the lady that runs the company I work for, and one with somebody from the apprenticeship scheme. I didn't have a lot of life experience or work experience, but I was chatty and communicative. I'd also done a lot of research, which helped me to answer their questions."
Gavin Bell, 18, similarly did his homework. He first heard about his BTec Level 3 in entrepreneurship and enterprise when Dragons' Den star Peter Jones tweeted about the course, offered at his eponymously-named Enterprise Academy in Manchester. "No one at my school in the Shetland Islands had heard of it," Bell recalls. So he did his own research, put in an application – and got an interview. "I prepared for that by going to the Academy to find out what students had previously been asked. It's mostly about showing you're prepared to work hard, and proving how committed you are. "
Bell's year-long programme demands that. "Everything you do – including your marketing plan and your business plan – is to launch your own company, and you pitch your idea to investors as part of the course," he explains. "You need to make a minimum of 10 sales as a business in order to pass." Bell's idea is Studyactiv, a fitness boot camp for students. And, while formulating that business, he completed a work experience placement, which resulted in a job offer. "I want to do both at the same time. It's going to be a lot of sleepless nights, but it will be worth it."
However, drive like Wrixon's and Bell's can go under-nurtured. "No one at school says 'have you thought about not going to university? Here are the other options'," notes Hattie Wrixon. The internet wasn't much better. "When my mum asked me if I wanted to go to university, I said no – but I'd been looking online and I couldn't find anything to help me decide what I did want to do." So mother and daughter launched Uni's Not for Me (www.unisnotforme.com). "It's a resource for people who aren't sure what they want to do," the younger Wrixon explains. The site offers information about non-uni courses and jobs, brought to life with case studies.
A similar resource is All About School Leavers (www.allaboutschool leavers.co.uk), with a comprehensive jobs board featuring non-graduate vacancies at major organisations including Accenture and the National Audit Office. There's also advice on how to ace a CV, cover letter, interview, and other types of assessments.
Then there's www.slenky.com, a site which posts work experience placements and jobs for 13- to 24-year-olds, including opportunities to connect with a professional mentor. Current employers include Topshop, Virgin Media, and Transport for London, among many.
According to Sarah Wrixon, all work experience is valuable for young people – as long as you can articulate what you learnt from it. For example: "I'm interested in people who've spent time in the service industry because it shows they can work unsocial hours and they can get on with people who aren't necessarily being nice to them." Just a few hours a week is enough – but stick at it; show you can commit.
"CVs are difficult because you probably won't have loads to put on there," acknowledges Hattie Wrixon. Her advice is to get involved in extra- curricular activities and schemes, such as those run by the education charity Young Enterprise (www.young-enterprise.org.uk). Their secondary school-level programmes include classroom-based schemes, which are run within schools, and company schemes, where young people are supported in setting up and running a real firm for a year. "It's a bit like Young Apprentice. It gives you something to put on your CV and talk about in interviews."
As for finding the right road for you, shouty street sign metaphors notwithstanding, your best option is to invest time in research, and to get as much support as you can. Talk to friends and family. Expand your knowledge of your sector. "Watch TV, go to the cinema, be observant when you walk down the high street, read newspapers, read magazines, travel if you can," says Sarah Wrixon. Trawl the internet. Talk to employers and employees. All that will give you a far better insight than any toothy, bouncy "youth" presenter – no matter how well-meaning.
How to apply yourself
- Thoroughly research the programme or company you're applying to.
- Think carefully about where the opportunity might lead. Try to envisage your future.
- Take care over your written application. Double-check your spelling and grammar.
- Tailor your application to each opportunity. Why you want it? Ensure that you address your application to the right individual.
- Make sure that your CV is clearly laid out and gives recruiters every reason to employ you, Highlight any relevant experience you have.