Does a student’s choice of course of study really matter?

We are told that graduates today will have up to 14 different jobs – and, in some cases, even entire career changes – before the age of 40. Apparently the top five choices of careers of contemporary graduates were unheard of 10 years ago. Schools, colleges and universities are preparing students for careers and jobs, therefore, that in the main do not yet exist. They will be using technologies that have not yet been invented – to solve problems that we do not even recognise as problems today. We have no way of predicting what the world will be like – and what will be the requirements for making a living – when current high school students who are now choosing between arts and sciences will complete their university studies in eight or more years’ time.

The grim reality is that today’s graduates have a hard time finding those secure positions. In some countries in Europe for instance, more than 25 percent of this year’s graduates – those graduating with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees – were unable to find professional positions. Many are choosing to delay entry into the job market by continuing their studies further, or are choosing to gain some kind of experience to add to their resumes by applying for internships – which range from receiving no remuneration, or at best an allowance. There are even internships in some top organisations that have to be bought. Many say that internships have added to the toll of unemployment by allowing – and even encouraging – companies and businesses to make use of this huge sector of available low cost limited-term labour which does not require employment benefits. One thing is for sure: paying for one’s way through a university education is not ending there for many young people – and their parents.

Ask employers why they are not willing to offer regular positions to fresh graduates. The hard truth is that employers are finding that applicants may be qualified in, and have knowledge of a subject, but in general, they are lacking in soft skills – they do not know how to communicate confidently by articulating and looking someone in the eye, they are not used to working collaboratively, they do not show initiative, they do not know how to take responsibility…

So how to choose the right course of study and subject to prepare for a secure career in the future?

How many people do we know that are in positions and careers that are in no way related to the subjects which they studied and in which they gained their qualifications? Certainly a lot of people in my own circle of colleagues and friends fall into that category.

So maybe there is no right course of study any more – unless it is for a specialism like brain surgery or a career in astronomy. My advice is that if a student is going to spend four years studying a subject in order to gain a degree, better to study a subject or, even better, a combination of subjects that the student enjoys and finds interesting – rather than studying a subject with a particular non-specialist career in mind as the goal. And take lots of electives to keep the profile as broad and appealing as possible.

If our school systems and universities are not going to teach the soft skills to students, maybe one of the best things we can do as parents is to make sure that we encourage our children to take up activities, courses, challenges, and appropriate holiday employment (seasonal jobs in the service industry or working with young people on a summer camp for instance) in which they can learn and develop these skills. Then they can have a better chance in making an entry into – and succeeding in – the job market.

One school that I know closely has two requirements of its senior high school students before they can qualify for a graduation certificate: to develop a business plan and to set up and develop a small enterprise to benefit society in some way; and to research and prepare a presentation on an original topic that they can present to a live audience in TED style – ensuring that it is professionally presented, is interesting, and is entertaining. They are assigned a mentor in order to fulfil both of these requirements.

They learn about business plans as part of their school studies; the mentor – usually a successful business person – guides them into putting theory into practice.

The mentor also guides them through the elements of a good presentation by studying examples of acclaimed talks and those that are not so great. Mentees are then coached in the delivery of the talk.

Those are real skills to prepare students for the wider world of employment. In fact, a proportion of students having successfully fulfilled these requirements choose to be self-sufficient by developing their own businesses, or even to become creators of jobs for others.

It would not be too difficult for all schools to adopt these or similar requirements as a real-time supplement to providing career advice.

Then our children can go on to become position holders of the wonderful titles we are seeing nowadays – Chief Sustainability Officer, Chief Relationship Officer, Chief Performance Officer… And who knows what other fancy titles are in the pipeline?

Of course, the much cheaper option is to forget the university course of study and arrange for an apprenticeship with a plumber. Then our children can comfortably look after us in our old age.

About the author

Ronald StonesRonald Stones OBE is a veteran leader of renown in schools and educational organisations. Although originally from Britain, his work has been centred mainly in South-East Asia in international education and in national education systems. He is Director of Ronald Stones Consulting which provides a boutique consultancy service in the field of education, and is an Associate of Ek-Legein Connections. He is based in Singapore and Indonesia.

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