The Grades vs Employment debate


You’ve probably heard it before: “My boss gets so-o-o-o many job applications these days that he immediately splits the pile in half and throws the ‘unlucky’ ones in the bin.”

Whether that is an urban legend made up by a bitter recruitment agent or not, there are more than one million NEET young people, many highly decorated, all competing for their big break during a long and gloomy recession.

If you have recently ripped open your A Level or GCSE results, you are no doubt agonising over your next steps. Will your grades set you apart? Will your email have the glimmering subject line that helps you get shortlisted?

It is hard to believe that highly competitive recruitment schemes don’t make quick and easy decisions based on their perception of the institution you attended or the exams you’ve taken. There is an assumption that Oxbridge and Russell Group candidates are better at everything. Many attendees of prestigious universities are not only given a very expensive education that has something of a ‘free pass’ status with employers, but are taught a lot about how to sell themselves, how to apply their skills to anything and how to make the most of the people they meet. Check out Amy Chua’s ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’ to understand just how Chinese families prepare their children for greatness.

This is the first year ever that exam results haven’t gone up. Teachers’ unions have complained that this is because of changes to mark schemes, which included new guidance that markers should no longer give entrants the benefit of the doubt. But the reality of the new practice was that people were getting the same marks even if some didn’t quite know the answer; unfair on those who had nailed it and impossible for admissions offices or employers to distinguish. And there is little room for the benefit of the doubt from potential employers who have the luxury of a raft of capable and willing employees. This is a highly competitive jobs market. If you are aiming big, you have to be big; you have to play the game.

The number of people choosing A Level PE was down 12.7%. Critical Thinking, the art of the argument and my secret pet subject, saw the biggest drop, as it is not recognised by universities in your total UCAS points. But it can give you an edge when talking your way into the upper echelons against hundreds of other candidates who are near identical on paper whilst those opting to study French dropped by 5.2%.

So Mickey Mouse subjects, long blamed for the wealth of students studying the Life and Times of Walt Disney, might see their day as high-paying students look to employability as much as self-fulfillment. But we are still missing a trick when it comes to languages.

Professionals have started to understand the world as a series or complex networks rather than the top-down trees first outlined by Aristotle and Darwin. Everything is connected. You need to know a little bit about everything, or at least be able to draw on others in areas that you lack.

It isn’t rude to use your network. Many people are keen to help if they think you are good. Think about the people that you know, or would like to meet. What skills, opportunities or contacts could they bring? While my dad had always been keen to offer me advice, there came a point where his skills as a village accountant and broad general knowledge could no longer help direct my career in London.

The UK was supposed to be the leading ‘knowledge economy’, but there isn’t much that you can’t find on Wikipedia in 30 seconds. Many industries have developed to support the idea of the ‘gig economy’. While the system can encourage us to specialise, there are increasing numbers of freelancers, consultants and project managers touring the country, that aren’t tied to anything by subject matter, but the skills they have.

We have lived more of our lives using powerful technology than without it and many employers are crying out for members of the digital generation to move seamlessly from web development to managing an online community. Even in traditionally directed careers like engineering, many graduates are tied to a desk because they’ve never been down onto a site so they understand how building actually works. Junior advertising roles can actually demand languages and an aptitude for Excel; spelling and grammar isn’t just the job of the journalist.

We are creating a world where it should and will pay to think differently – financial services reform, social entrepreneurship and sustainability – you may need qualifications, but life experience might tell you the real questions and answers to some of our biggest questions. Is it the dominance of Russell Group universities that has led to groupthink in the City and in Westminster? How do we change that?

It is very rare that we can ever be truly free. Students can’t write without referencing. Job applications routinely ask for ‘organisations skills’, ‘good time management’ and the ‘ability to work with people at all levels.’

How do you make yourself stand out and at the same time conform enough to be considered? It seems getting a job is a science and an art. Exam results are no longer a given. What you do and where you do it really matters. You have to make wise choices. Upskill for free – don’t limit yourself…

What you do now will determine the doors that are open to you further down the line. Nothing worth doing is easy. But doing something well is actually a lot of fun.

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