SPOC: Students Planning Their Own Careers (Full Article)

This Post

This post is based on a paper I presented at INTED2013 (7th International Technology, Education and Development Conference)


In our ever more complex world, as illustrated by the video “Shift Happens“, the idea of careers being planned in some linear manner is increasingly untenable.

However individuals still need a way of identifying the skills that will underpin their future personal and professional development.

The challenge is this: how do they decide the skills they will need in the short, medium and long term.

Why careers guidance doesn’t work

In this environment it can be difficult to know what the end of next week will look like, so understanding the skills requirements of the world of work in 10 years’ time would appear to be an impossible task.

In spite of this we still try to equip our young people for this future world of work by using historic data to make predictions of demand for future occupations and the qualifications that these will require.

This is process is often described as careers Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) and is ultimately doomed to fail in the rapidly changing world we live and work in.

Why? Because any decision made about future jobs and skills will be out of date before the young person gains their first qualification.

Lifelong learning

It appears rare that the concept of Lifelong Learning is included in careers IAG. This which contrasts badly with the concept of us living in an exponentially evolving world in which many students are preparing for jobs that do not yet exist.

According to Stephanie Bird, director of HR capability at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, by 2020, the UK economy will be even more globalised.

The transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy will be in full swing and rapid development in China, India and elsewhere will place huge strain on natural and technological resources.

She notes that the gaming generation will be middle-aged and virtual services will be the basis for many jobs. She also notes there will still be real jobs to be had but you may have to switch careers to find one.

Her advice is to “Start from the assumption that 2020 will look nothing like now“. “We can’t ‘future-proof’ careers,” she says, “but we can ‘future-adapt’ them“.

Time to Competence

One issue is the time needed for an individual to develop the technical and interpersonal skills that will enable to operate effectively in a future world. This is sometimes referred to as an individual’s “time to competence”.

As an example: In one of the author’s previous careers, this one in the UK water industry, there was a constant shortage of Chartered Engineers.

The key issue was always that the requirements for chartered status are an honours degree and 10 years’ experience.

This means that even if a school leaver or new industry entrant is persuaded to take this career path today the earliest they could be chartered is 2016.

There is effectively a similar pattern in higher management or specialist roles where an individual’s years of experience are a major factor in determining their suitability for promotion.

Long term planning

The key message is that longer term planning is important is an important consideration for those who are serious about managing their personal and professional development.

The challenge is to find a systematic and robust way of engaging young people with the process.

This paper shows a practical way of doing this which was piloted by the author and Wolverhampton University in the UK.

The pilot was well received by both staff and students and further work is now in progress to embed this approach into their 12 week Lifelong learning and Employability Module.

The Context

The project was carried out with final year students from the School of Architecture at Wolverhampton University.

The students were taking an Architecture degree and were expecting to work the field. Most students had a clear idea of the areas they wanted to specialise in.

As part of their course the students undertake a module “Lifelong Learning”.

The objective of the module is to help student understand that they will be working in a constantly changing world, one in which their skills can rapidly become outdated.

The purpose of this project was to pilot test a way of giving them a tool which will help them develop concrete, evidence based, Personal and Professional Development Plans (PPDPs).

The hypothesis was that engaging the students in the process would make them more likely to engage with the idea of owning, and taking responsibility for, their on-going personal and professional development.

A New Approach

The approach taken by the author turns the IAG process on its head, pacing the students at the heart of the process.

It is based on the idea that the best way to engage an individual with an idea is to involve them in its development: “Tell me and I will forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I will learn”.

The underpinning technique is that of scenario planning. However the key objective of the exercise is not the scenario plan itself but the Personal and Professional Development Plan (PPDP) that it leads to.

This is consistent with the saying that author uses: “Life is not about what you know it’s about what you do with what you do with what you know”.

Development follows a series of logical steps, each one building on the outputs of the previous step. This approach is sometime referred to as a logic chain. The logic chain for developing as PPDP is shown in Fig. 1.

Logic Chain v2
Figure 1: PDP development logic chain

The important point in this process was that the students did the development work, working in groups to generate ideas. These ideas were then presented to the class and debated to develop consensus views. The author’s role was to guide the students through the process and facilitate the debate.

The Stages

This section describes the Scenario planning and PPDP development process in more detail.

The emphasis in the pilot is on testing how well the students engaged with the process and the underpinning ideas rather than on the concrete outcomes that they achieved.

Stage 1: Scenario development

There are many approaches to scenario planning and some of the methods can be complex and time consuming. For this project a quick and simple technique was needed.

The author selected the two axis method, as used by the UK Government Department of Business, Industry and Skills in the UK. For reference the scenario framework is shown in Fig. 2.

The author had experience of using this model in his work as Head of Research and Performance for a UK Sector Skills Council and used it as a core element of their 18 month Sector Skills Agreement project.

This Sector Skills Agreement set out the skills priorities, and the action plans to address those priorities, for the gas, power, waste management and water industries across the four nations of the united Kingdom.

It is a testament to the simplicity and flexibility of the model that it was able to engage a wide range of employers and stakeholders and produce well received results.

Certain uncertainties

In this method data and opinions are debated and categorised into Certainties (those things which will or are very likely to happen) and Uncertainties (this things which may or may not happen).

The Certainties are recorded and used to set the context of the discussion. The uncertainties are debated and prioritised, and two are selected to be the axes of the scenario (dimensions).
To be effective scenarios should deliberately consider the extremes of the selected dimensions, experience showing that it is in the extremes that the most innovative ideas are created. This is not that same as saying that it is expected that these extreme cases will occur, it is just a technique for helping people to think outside of their normal constraints.

1.1 Scenario Certainties

The principle certainties identified were:

  • An aging population
    Data from the UK Office of National Statistics (ONS) show that in the period 2010-2020 there will be a 16% increase in the population over the age of 60. By contrast there will be around 12% fewer young people (18-24)
  •  Exponentially increasing levels of complexity and technology
    While harder to measure it is illustrated well in the video clip “Shift Happens[1].It may appear ironic that one of the major certainties is that life is increasingly uncertainty, but this is an important element in setting the context of the scenario.
1.2 Scenario Uncertainties

The principle uncertainties identified were:

  • The future level of economic prosperity
    What will the state of the economy be in 10 years’ time? Will we have recovered from the current slump or will we still be in decline?
  • The future level of social stability
    We have seen recently that economic downturns can lead to social unrest. How stable will our future world be?

These two dimensions were used as the axes of the scenario.

1.3 Developing the scenario

The students worked in two groups to develop their ideas of the two scenarios.

One group looked at a world of economic growth and social stability while the other looked at a world of economic decline and social instability.

The first future world was given the title “Golden days” and the second the title “Hard Times”

Each group spent time developing its scenario, then presenting its ideas to the other in a “review and Challenge” process.

Stage 2: Developing Future Worlds

SPOC Scenario
Figure 2: Scenario Planning Framework

An important element of the work was for the students to develop short textual descriptions of each of their future worlds.

This exercise helped make the scenario more concrete in the minds of the participants.

This in turn will help them think about the kind of lives that the inhabitants of each world will be leading and what their housing needs will be.

The understanding that they gained in this process helped the students think about the kinds of technologies that those future housing needs would require and the skills that they, the students, would have to acquire to be effective in delivering the required housing.

The students developed the following descriptions:

Golden Days

This is a world of economic prosperity; globally there is free trade and individual economies are growing well.

Societies are stable and well-run, and there is a spirit of friendship and collaboration between nations and at regional and local levels.

It is normal for people to work across national boundaries, either by working abroad or by using communications technologies.

There are plenty of well-paid and interesting jobs and people enjoy a very comfortable existence.

People are increasingly using use their wealth on aspirational purchases, buying range of high tech entertainment and communication devices.

Homes are becoming increasingly sophisticated with high levels of automation and computer networks fitted as standard. High quality fixtures and finishes are the norm.

To meet the high levels of demand for houses modular construction is the norm, but used in a way which allows individuals to “mix and match” standard and custom components to specify the home of their choice.

However the increasing use of technology is putting a strain on energy resources and strict rules are being introduced on energy efficiency of building and the technologies they utilise.

Hard Times

This is a world in economic difficulties. Nations and individuals are struggling with their debts and nations are becoming increasingly protectionist. Societies are starting to break down as jobs dry up and Governments find it increasingly difficult to fund welfare payments.

A cause of complaint is that a small number of individuals continue to well while the majority are expected to get by on less and less.

Jobs are increasingly scarce. Those who have them are hanging on to them and employers are not increasingly entrenching to preserve their market share rather than looking to grow and expand.

Jobs are becoming increasingly automated and de-skilled in the interests of greater operating efficiency.

The previously buoyant housing market has collapsed. Mortgages are hard to get and expensive and the majority of people can only afford basic, utilitarian, housing.

To reduce costs modular construction is the norm, but with increasingly standardised specifications and only limited options for customisation.

The high cost of energy relative to incomes means that buyers are demanding very energy efficient houses and technologies such as solar panels and combined heat and power plants in place of conventional central heating boilers.

Stage 3: Forecasting future technologies and skills

The students worked in groups to consider these questions:

  • What would the houses of the future world be like?
  • What technologies would these houses use
  • What skills would the students need to develop in order to be an effective part of the industry that delivers the homes of the future?
3.1 Key technologies in the future worlds

It was notable from the student’s work that most of the key technologies they identified would be applicable in both future worlds, although for different reasons.

The student’s work is summarised in Table 1

TechnologyGolden DaysHard Times
Energy EfficiencyManaging the demand from a spiralling range of electronic and electrical devicesMaximising the value obtained from expensive energy by low income households
Smarter BuildingsProviding high-end in building facilitiesMaking buildings more economical to run
Modular ConstructionProviding readily customisable housingReducing building costs
Advnaced MaterialsProviding high-end fitments and finishesProviding durable and economical fitments and finishes

Clearly these classifications are broad generalities and there will be overlap between the requirements of the two worlds.

However they do give an insight into the core skills that architects of the future will require in the opinion of this group of students.

It is the author’s firm belief that the most important outcome of this part of the exercise in not the technologies identified, which will arguably become outdated anyway, but that the students now have a way of developing their own views on the subject and are engaged with the process.

Stage 4: Future skills needs

As would be expected the students identified future skills needs which corresponded with the technologies that they has identified. These included

  • 3-D Printing
  • High-end CAD skills (REVIT, 3D-Max)
  • Building Information Management (BIM)
  • The ability to engage with communities and end users
  • Research skills to stay abreast of new and emerging technologies

It is notable that these are the kinds of topics that university staff have had difficulty in engaging the students with.

Feedback from the students was that they felt, having gone through the scenario planning process, that they could now see both the need for them to have these skills in the future and the need for them to start acquiring them earlier rather than later.

Stage 5: Personal and Professional development plans

Having developed an idea of what the future could look like and the skills they it would demand, students were then asked to consider what they need to be now and in the medium term to be sure that they had the required skills at the right time.

The students discussed and agreed the idea that managing their own personal and professional development was an on-going exercise that they would be responsible for.

This represented a step change in position from the idea that somehow someone would tell them what they needed to study.

While there was not time for student to develop concrete individual PDPs they did agree that a PDP should be based on SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) measures and be flexible.

The student view of PDPs

In general terms the students identified the following points for PPDPs:

  • A PDP should be owned by the person, not an organisation
  • The availability of PPD opportunities, formal and informal, would be an important factor when selecting jobs to apply for
  • They would need some kind of recognised professional Continuous Development Programme (CPD)
  • They would probably need a higher level qualification, probably at Masters level, at some stage
  • Their PPDP may include management skills as well as technical skills

Project Outcomes

The students were clearly engaged by the scenario planning process. From conversations with them in was clear that they liked being involved in their own personal and professional development.

They also found the scenario planning approach gave them a framework in which to think.

This contrasted with their previous dissatisfaction at not really knowing what they needed to be doing in PDP terms after they finished their degree.

In these terms the pilot was a success, having been successfully developed and delivered the teaching materials.

It achieved its intended objective of engaging the students with the ideas and practice of managing their own personal and professional development.

However, even with the benefit of this process, many of the students still found it difficult to think beyond getting their first degree.

Arguably this is to be expected as for many students getting their degree has been the focus of their lives for the last 10 years. To ask them to suddenly change to regarding it as “just” a stepping stone is unrealistic.

There appears to be a case for universities and colleges to work with students from an early stage to help them understand what the world of work will be like and what they need to do to give themselves the best possible chance of doing well in it.

Next Steps

Wolverhampton University recognises the importance of producing students who are aware of the need to constantly react to the changing requirements of the labour market and to changing employer expectations.

The author is working with them to develop a larger teaching package with three key elements:

  • Personal and professional development planning
  • Understanding business culture
  • Developing “T-Shaped” skill sets

It is hoped that that such a teaching package will help students “hit the ground running” when they enter the world of work.


I hope that you have enjoyed reading this post. If you have thoughts on what I have written so far please leave a comment. Also if you have an idea for another business topic let me know and I’ll be delighted to find a space for it.

Thanks again

Bob windmill

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