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Long read: Pathways to success – how employer outreach programmes can help disadvantaged young people feel ‘career ready’

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October 7, 2021 | Huw Penson


Increased productivity, better employee retention, improvements in employee wellbeing: the benefits of building a socio-economically diverse workforce and a workplace culture inclusive of those from low socio-economic backgrounds are becoming increasingly clear to many employers. 

More and more businesses are removing barriers in their hiring processes and driving cultural change to ensure that those from working class backgrounds are not only welcome in their workplace, they will have opportunities to thrive and progress. 

Despite this move toward greater inclusion, young people from poorer backgrounds are frequently deterred from pursuing higher paying jobs with better prospects. This hesitancy is often mistakenly attributed to a lack of confidence or ambition. The reality however, is that for a disadvantaged young person planning their future, the barriers to a higher paid or higher skilled career come into play long before they happen upon an advert for a role for which your business is hiring. 

A well designed outreach programme can help disadvantaged young people with vital information and support. It can also ensure that a wider pool of diverse talent isn’t opting out of your industry before they’ve ever applied for your jobs.

The Social Mobility Commission’s new report, “Pathways to success”, details the barriers that young people face when engaging career advice and offers insight into how you – as an employer – can design an outreach programme that overcomes these barriers.

What are the barriers to effective outreach?

All young people inevitably struggle to overcome barriers to engagement with career guidance, regardless of their socio-economic background. For many, their careers are in their future. As a result they find it hard to appreciate the benefit of putting in the effort to seek out advice in the present moment. 

There’s also a lot of information out there. The variety of career options available and the different pathways into them can mean careers advice materials appear overwhelming. In these instances, young people will often fail to engage fully with these materials and fall back on ‘rule-of-thumb’ decision making instead. 

For young people from disadvantaged backgrounds however, these challenges are felt more acutely, and their circumstances create additional barriers that make engagement with careers advice significantly more difficult.

A disadvantaged young person is more likely to lack the belief that their career search will be successful (“low self-efficacy). Their career aspirations are likely based on the jobs done by members of their family or communities (“social norms”), and they will favour information about careers from their friends and personal networks (“‘hot’ information”), rather than career advice materials or platforms (“cold”) – particularly where it supports their own point of view (“confirmation bias”). They are also more likely to be concerned about the cost of choosing different career paths (“risk aversion”), whether it be the financial cost of pursuing either a vocational qualification or higher education, or the social costs associated with moving to a different town or city with better prospects for their chosen career. Even when they plan to engage with career information, they may not get round to it, perhaps due to a part-time job or responsibilities at home (the ‘intention-action gap’).

Together these factors create significant barriers to those from disadvantaged backgrounds and lead to two very different experiences for them when compared with those from privileged backgrounds.

First, imagine you’re a young person growing up in a professional household:

At least one of your parents went to university and is employed in a professional role. Your expectation and that of your family is that you will go to university and will likely also be employed in a professional role. 

Your social networks and those of your family expose you to the wider world of work. You see others in your family or network who do different professional roles. As a result of this social capital, you have opportunities to secure work experience in a number of different settings, thereby being exposed to the world of work and the wide range of opportunities that are out there.

Understanding that a variety of career paths exists and believing that these paths are open to you helps you to engage with careers advice – whether this comes from parents, peers, or careers advisers and careers advice materials available online. 

Now, by contrast, imagine you’re from a working class background:

Your parents started working straight after school ended and one or both work in manual or routine jobs.

You find it difficult to imagine yourself in a professional role and are unsure of what careers are available to you or how ‘someone like you’ you might go about accessing them. You worry about whether the potential benefits of going to university or pursuing a higher level technical qualification are worth the financial and social costs, and your ties to your community make the prospect of moving for work a challenging one. 

The prospect of engaging with careers advisors makes you anxious as you feel that the experience would be humiliating and in the end, your search may not be successful anyway. Besides, deciding on a career is a long way away and it’s hard to see how choosing a subject in school will really make a difference in the long run.

As a result, you only seek out advice on a narrow range of careers and favour information that comes to you through your social connections. 

How can you design outreach that overcomes these barriers?

1. Provide information that will increase pupils’ awareness of opportunities and perceptions of belonging. 

Overcome issues of self-efficacy and social norms by providing information and guidance on the variety of careers that exist in your field and the different routes into them. Connect at a personal level; individualised information and information on the world of work can help to broaden awareness of different career paths and reduce feelings that such opportunities aren’t for ‘someone like them’.

Hearing different stories can display the wide range of different paths, roles and entry points into a career in your sector and help show young people (and their parents) the range of viable options available to them. In your outreach materials, aim to include success stories of low socio-economic background (SEB) employees who have thrived in your industry. If you’re attending outreach events to offer guidance, try to ensure that the people speaking on behalf of your company represent a diverse range of experiences, both in terms of their gender, ethnic and socio-economic background, but also their route into your business and the types of work they do. Remember – you don’t always have to showcase senior leaders. Recent hires can help connect with young people and show them these pathways are possible for them. 

You don’t have to stick to just telling young people about opportunities or providing information. Try designing your outreach to include  ‘motivational’ activities that prompt young people to engage in a more active way, helping them to think on the value of engaging in a career in your field. 

A number of trials from the behavioural science literature have demonstrated that ‘informative nudges’ (i.e. interventions designed to improve knowledge about the costs and benefits of educational investments) can improve a range of outcomes in education and job search behaviour.

For example, a trial in Scotland tested the effect of providing job seekers with semi-customised information on jobs they might be qualified for via an online platform. When searching for one type of occupation, they were provided with related job searches based on their area of interest. This increased the breadth of job information they accessed and had the biggest impact for those who initially searched narrowly.” 

Guidance on what the different skills and qualification requirements are for the different paths into your industry (such as whether or not a higher degree is necessary) can help pupils who are deciding whether to pursue higher or further education make an informed decision on if doing so is worth the potential costs and therefore whether it is the right choice for them. 

 

2. Use tried and tested exercises to engage young people

Confirmation bias can be a powerful factor in why young people struggle to engage with information on careers. If a young person is convinced they won’t be successful in their career search, and is inclined to favour evidence that supports that view, then trying to convince them otherwise is going to be a real challenge.

‘Self-persuasion’ exercises – in which individuals are asked to reflect on the value of  a particular behaviour and write about it – have been shown to have a positive impact on a range of education outcomes. It is possible then that using self-persuasion exercises in your outreach could support young people to come to more balanced conclusions about their career prospects, helping  them to engage more effectively with available information. 

Goal-setting has also been seen to improve students engagement with particular tasks in educational settings; working with students to set similar goals on engagement with careers information could help both you and them to make the most of the time you spend on outreach.

 

3. Offer face-to-face careers guidance and outreach, rather than relying solely on digital platforms. 

Our “Pathways to success” report explored whether behavioural nudges might increase engagement with online careers advice by disadvantaged young people. In the end the interventions we tested did not have the desired effect, possibly due to COVID-19’s impact on school closures.

Instead, what we found was that disadvantaged young people appear to engage less well with digital platforms, even when they’re doing so in a mandatory, formal school setting. A possible reason for this is that the barriers identified above – particularly the preference for ‘hot’ information’ alongside the information overload associated with online career advice platforms  – make engaging with these platforms particularly challenging. 

That these young people struggle to engage in a supervised school setting, where the support of adults is available, may indicate that engagement with such platforms at home, where access to suitable technology may be limited, is even more difficult. 

While there is no doubt a role for these platforms, these findings point to the value of face-to-face outreach. When communicating with disadvantaged young people, try to provide information in person, such as through career events and similar opportunities to interact directly wherever possible to reduce the likelihood that pupils encounter barriers when searching for information online or on platforms. 

One clear takeaway for employers is this: keep things simple – with so many paths to choose from, unnecessary information won’t help young people to make decisions and could harm their prospects in the long term.

 

4. Make sure that your guidance is reaching those who need it most

Targeting your outreach effectively is critical. Doing so can help to make sure not only that your business is reaching an untapped pool of  talent with your outreach, the information is also helping those who need it most. 

Aim to ensure that your efforts are specifically targeting the most disadvantaged young people – such as those on free school meals, or those in social mobility coldspots. Build relationships with schools and further education colleges and work with them to ensure that their students have the right information to make the next steps.

Remember, you don’t have to do this alone. There are a wide range of other organisations that are working to reach the most disadvantaged. Partnering with them to deliver effective outreach can help to ensure that the right information gets to the right place. Take a look at our Directory page for a list of possible organisations you could partner with

5. Create opportunities to boost social capital for those who need it most

A key benchmark of a young person’s career readiness are their encounters with the labour market. Those from privileged backgrounds are likely to have privileged networks and better access to work experience opportunities as they can draw on family and friends to secure them. 

Creating opportunities for those without privileged networks to experience the world of work – such as work experience schemes, internships and other opportunities –  and targeting/ring-fencing them at the most disadvantaged can boost social capital for this group and help to motivate them to consider a career in your industry. 

 

5.  Think about gender as well as class

Our previous report ‘the road not taken: drivers of course selection’ found that men are more likely to take courses in higher-earning subject areas, such as engineering, construction and planning, while low SEB women are more likely to study subjects associated with low earnings, such as retail, commerce, beauty, health, care and public services – at least partially because gender norms remain pervasive. For disadvantaged women, this is felt particularly deeply in labour market outcomes: 50% of disadvantaged women take low-earning courses ranked in the bottom 25% of earnings. 

This manifests when looking at job vacancies too. When students used the Unifrog website to search for vacancies, males showed higher aspiration levels in terms of the median salary of the roles they shortlisted despite being less engaged in the process overall than females. 

When designing your outreach, take steps to de-gender careers which young people see as typical of one gender or another. Have women working in construction and engineering speak at outreach events alongside men in retail, health and care positions, to help young women (and men) redefine what a career for someone like them looks like. 

Go the extra mile

Want to go the extra mile? Try tackling students’ perception that they can’t do a career in your field by creating a fun, interactive strengths test. This can help disadvantaged students understand what skills and strengths they already have that can help them succeed. 

For example, if they enjoy interacting with people, they might be good fits for sales, client management, customer service, management or a range of other roles in your industry. Helping students make these connections can help them overcome a self-perception that they aren’t suited to your industry.

Finally, don’t forget that young people rarely make decisions in a vacuum. Young people rely on the support of their parents and frequently turn to them for advice and guidance on making a choice right for them. Often though, parents can feel as if they too lack the understanding of the options available and feel unprepared to support their children’s decisions. 

If you have the opportunity to engage with parents of young people, take it. Research shows it can pay dividends for their kids!

For more information on how to design effective outreach programmes, take a look at the outreach section of our cross-industry toolkit. 

To understand more about how young people interact with careers advice and the barriers to those from disadvantaged backgrounds, read our latest report: Pathways to success.

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