How to choose a rewarding career

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Cydney has a year to go before finishing her studies at Baldwin High School in Long Island, New York but, having decided she wants a career in digital media, she has already spent time in two companies and held discussions with a mentor to help her achieve her aim.

“His message was to put yourself out there: opportunities won’t just come to you,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to ask or to fail.”

She is in one of the school’s multiple “career academies”, which provide guidance and link students with relevant workplaces.

The goal is to motivate and engage students, giving them projects that will help increase their chances of future employment.

And it is needed as there is a large gap in knowledge, expectations and skills between millions of young people and the employers they wish to work for.

Graphics: skills for a changing workplace

Scroll further down to see some charts highlighting how demand for different skills is changing

For students, information on careers and what they truly involve is sparse and incomplete. Meanwhile, their aspirations can be limited by their own contacts, information and local opportunities.

Often, their teachers have little professional experience outside education; and the knowledge of family members can be narrow, shaped in a very different era. Careers services tend to be underfunded, ill-equipped or non-existent.

As for employers, they have complained for decades that their new hires are not “work-ready” and leave school or college without the necessary attributes. Beyond basic numeracy and literacy, that often means interpersonal and so-called “soft” skills.

So this World of Work guide, accompanied by a free online event, is designed to help students decide on subjects to study, activities beyond the classroom, and whether to continue in full-time education, enter the workforce or combine the two with training or apprenticeships.

Part of the free FT schools programme, the report offers advice on how to make applications stand out; insights into different employment sectors; and advice for students on preparing for their first job.

World of Work: free online event for students

Join us on Monday 27 March at 2pm – 3.30pm BST for a digital event hosted by FT Schools, offering more practical advice on skill building and career planning, and live Q&A. Sessions will be available to watch on-demand as well.

Register your free place here

The range of jobs available and the ways to obtain them vary widely between countries and regions, and among students with different backgrounds and talents.

Nancy Matimu, managing director for Kenya at entertainment company MultiChoice, says: “We see two sets of students: those from wealthy families — the few who have the luxury to take a gap year, with lots of opportunities to figure out what courses to get on to — and the rest, who live in poverty and are looking to get into work as soon as possible.”

But, just as in other parts of the world, she points to a huge demand for digital skills and a growing openness by employers to recruit based on talent rather than connections — with chances for students who do their research to find the best courses and recruitment networks. “How you present yourself, your posture, how you communicate — impressions do count,” Matimu adds.

The good news, overall, is that a growing number of career resources are now available.

The modern workplace has also become more open and dynamic; competencies count as much as purely academic subjects or performance; and “jobs for life” have been replaced by flexibility, so no decision need be final.

Oli de Botton, head of the UK’s Careers and Enterprise Company, says: “It’s important for young people to be destination-secure but pathway agnostic. There are some fantastic skills-based routes out there. Consider experiences as well as academic results. And remember that careers last a lifetime and change over time. Finding a place where you can thrive is the goal.”

With that in mind, here are eight tips for success in life after school:

  1. Do your research. There is a mismatch between expectations and requirements for many career paths, but online resources can help close the gap. National careers services and non-profit organisations offer tool kits, provide information and nurture life skills (see resources box). Read the FT to learn more about employers, sectors and themes.

  2. Network. Take every chance to ask people for advice: friends, family, contacts, others you can reach through social networks such as LinkedIn. If you ask for a few minutes of advice rather than a job, most people are happy to help and may steer you to future opportunities when the time is right.

  3. Remember there are many fulfilling careers. There is a fresh focus on the importance of “heart, hand and mind” rather than simply intellectual ability. Projections by the OECD suggest that demand for routine tasks — manual and cognitive — is in decline, but it is growing for non-routine tasks. AI and coding cannot replace skilled jobs such as plumbing, cooking and caring.

  4. Accept that university is not for everyone. University is a chance for the intellectually curious to explore and be stretched, and build a network of friends. But not everyone can afford or will enjoy it, or is ready for it so young. There are other ways to continue education while working, such as degree apprenticeships.

  5. Don’t think a job is forever. The days of employment for life are largely over. Most careers in future will involve multiple activities and employers. Students need to be prepared for roles that have not yet even been defined or invented. A decision today is not locked in for a lifetime.

  6. Acquire hard and soft skills. Literacy and numeracy are important, as are new skills such as coding. But so are practical skills, including clear communication, critical thinking, creativity and being able to get on well with others and put them at ease.

  7. Value experiences as well as qualifications. Academic performance is important, but employers want evidence of different capacities: work experience, volunteering, family support and activities outside the classroom can show leadership, initiative, compassion and teamwork.

  8. Keep learning. Increasingly, we will all need to spend more time in training to keep up to date with technology and learn new skills. Education will in the future be more of a continuum throughout life rather than something focused on young people before or at the start of their careers.

Skills for a changing workplace

These charts draw on analysis from the World Economic Forum and the OECD, to show how the demand for different skills is changing as the world of work evolves.

Chart showing that demand is growing for analytical skills

As you can see in chart 1, the demand for “soft skills” — such as critical thinking and problem-solving — is on the rise. And chart 2 highlights the growing shift away from routine, manual and unskilled work towards non-routine cognitive work that cannot be easily automated.

Chart showing that routine-based work is declining

Wider societal trends, including an ageing population, and greater use of technology, are also driving growth in certain sectors, including healthcare and education, where there are currently not enough workers with the right skills to meet demand, see chart 3.

Chart showing that medical knowledge and education skills are under-supplied

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