Employability – How can we teach kids to fish for themselves?

A little while ago I was talking to a friend who’s a school teacher.  He talked about his keenness to build ‘life skills’ amongst his pupils and the current focus on ‘employability’.

At the time I was mulling over a topic for another blog and had come across a lovely quote which seemed fitting: “the real purpose of education. The Latin root of the word – educere – means, literally, to “lead out”; to develop a human being…”.

The concept to ‘lead out’ is brilliant.  With beautiful simplicity it highlights the importance of of giving children the space to develop and reach their potential.  This shifts the emphasis from ‘filling children with facts’ to helping our children identify their unique strengths and how they can capitalise on them.

I was once told “focus on what you enjoy and the rest will come”.  However, if employability was just about doing what you love, we’d have nailed it by now.  Unfortunately the forces at work are much more complex than that.  We need to temper our dreams with a healthy dose of realism: there’s no point in pursuing your dream as an artist if you can’t afford to live.  As the daughter of post-war baby boomers, growing up in the age of Thatcher, this need to be able to pay my way loomed large.

These days even a first class degree doesn’t guarantee a job.  What employers are looking for is someone who has taken practical steps towards chosen specialism, who has had some exposure to the world of work (this may start with careers events, but then needs to go deeper to include work-based projects undertaken at school or higher education; as well as seeking out opportunities for shadowing, mentoring, internships and networking).  These experiences will enable our kids to learn the language of their chosen profession, to know the hot topics and the current challenges.  Understanding what’s important to potential employers will enable them to think in more concrete terms about what they have to offer (an essential part of persuading any would-be employer of their suitability).

Whilst specific advice in what to study will depend on what they want to do and gaps in the labour market, there are some qualities that are likely to remain stable over time. These include:

Personal Drive:

Interpersonal Skills:

  • Communication skills – being able to say what you mean, for others to understand.
  • Social skills – being able to build rapport, influence others, and know how to avoid rubbing people up the wrong way
  • Political awareness – an old boss advised me ‘politics is the art of the possible’, but it’s also something that comes with experience


  • Know your values, be consistent with them and don’t be afraid to challenge or to stand-up for what you believe in.

These are all life-long qualities that we can start to help our children build before they even get to secondary school.  That way they’ll become a way of life and not artificially adopted to impress at an interview.  The most obvious consequence being that not only will they get the job or career they want, they will be more likely to succeed at it. Galinsky’s ‘Mind in the Making’ (2010) offers a great account of how to build such foundations.

So that’s all about our kids attracting employers. But what about them knowing what they want in the first place? Rather than trying to pin down a career in one step, they may find it useful to first think about what their life goals are and what drives them (financial security, family, work-life balance, challenge, a clear career path, glitz and glamour?).

We may also need to help them understand that their priorities today may not be their priorities in 20 years’ time.  Envisaging their future selves and having an idea of their life goals will help them make decisions now that will help them make such dreams a reality.

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