Parents, who’d have them?

School and college careers services continue to experience ever more demanding requirements. All schools are expected to use Gatsby as the gold standard against which to model their provisions, yet budgets remain constrained. It’s not a sustainable solution but, in the absence of other funding, the only option is to identify and draw on free resources. Having looked at how to get the best out of free employer visits, this article moves on to suggest that parents are another valid source of free support.

“You are kidding, right?”

Often, parents are merely given lip-service as a viable source of careers information and expertise. They’re not professionally trained in careers education, they’ve experienced few roles in their careers and probably worked in even fewer industries. That undoubtedly puts most of them completely out of touch with current entry requirements and career development paths for the 99.9% of jobs that exist, other than their own. Worse, some parents are likely to be working in dying trades or industries without being aware of it, making them poor careers advocates. Most parents live in a state of deep concern, if not actual despair, over the prospects for their own children and if they had any idea what to do, surely they’d already be doing it?

It’s also not uncommon for careers teachers to be wary of parents, some of whom can be prone to sudden and emotional bouts of aggressive behaviour, brought on by frustration at what they perceive as school or college inadequacy. Such situations disproportionately consume already-stretched time and resources, leaving cash-strapped careers departments in defensive mode and at risk of further demoralisation.

On the other hand …

Parents are by far the most highly motivated people involved in the process of moving young people out of education and into the world of further training or work. Most want their offspring to develop and prosper over the long haul and the rest at least want their personal living space back at some point. In either case, they know that a job, preferably with prospects, is the key. That fact alone points to the existence of a large and potentially useable resource.

Parents generally have considerably more contact time available to spend with their teenagers than even the best funded careers teacher ever will. They may not see it that way, being under pressure from all sides, but when the chips are down they’ll always find time for what’s most important to them, whether that’s at 7.30 in the morning, 9.00 at night, or over the weekend. That time can be harnessed.

They certainly have the deepest insight into the interests, likes, abilities, values and beliefs of their own teenagers, although most don’t appreciate the value of that insight, nor how it might best be utilised to help their teenager find direction. However, once shown how to do that, their understanding of their teenager’s basic character gives them considerably more practical influence than they might expect.

Making job and career choices can involve several false starts and teenagers risk stalling completely if they come up against the buffers on one of their choices. They don’t know what to do, they can feel it’s their fault and they may never talk about the situation until it’s too late. With constant exposure, parents are best placed to spot anxiety and disengagement promptly, once they’re made aware of the issues their children might experience. They can be highly effective at getting their teenager moving again, they can do so sooner, and they can do so with a considerably lighter touch than careers staff would be able to.

When it comes to employability, careers staff can prime the pump with information and guidance on skills, CV preparation, application submission and interview preparation, but parents are the only people who can effectively keep things moving through timely nudges, practical monitoring and flexible delivery of basic advice and guidance.

Finally, although an individual parent has a very limited view of the world of career choice and development, their collective experience as a group of parents is huge, if you consider how many different roles they’ve experienced in total. So, thought of another way, every careers department has potential access to perhaps 200 or more specialists, each a career ‘expert’ in their own field. That’s a very valuable network of experience, industries, career paths, educational backgrounds, motivations and abilities that often remains completely untapped.

Abandoning Sisyphus

If there are free resources to be had, then re-framing the challenge can deliver a substantially bigger impact. To be clear, getting input from parents is never actually going to be ‘free’ since organising parental engagement costs time, money and resources. However, for the same budget, given a choice between perpetually shoving a giant careers boulder uphill single-handedly, or getting a couple of hundred other people to shoulder some of that burden, it’s very clear which way to move forward.

The challenge then at least partly transforms into one of marshalling and managing parents as an external resource. If every set of relevant parents provided only ten hours of extra input, guided by the careers department, the result is perhaps 1,000 hours of additional resource going towards helping young people make more positive career choices, reducing the number of NEETS and enhancing the long term reputation of the educational establishment concerned.

Considering the actual exposure time that parents have and their level of motivation, ten hours a year seems an awfully unambitious target. Experience shows that when parents fully understand the challenges faced by careers staff, and are shown how to easily and practically help, they’re invariably more receptive to assisting. The next article in this series goes on to look at the practical steps a careers department can take to engage more parents more effectively.

About the Author

Jon Gregory is an employability specialist, working with schools, employers and parents to help young people into work and a career. He’s a published author in this field, writes for several leading websites and he edits, a site providing free employability advice and tips. Jon also tweets advice from @letsfirewalk