Resilience: The Third Dimension in Career Planning & Management

Traditional approaches to careers education and guidance have focused on the relationship between individual qualifications and talents and the career opportunities that exist in the economy. Latterly, there has been increasing focus on the changing dynamics of the labour market and the need for people to understand the ways in which careers are changing: Job types are becoming obsolete and new ones emerging; young people entering the labour market now can expect to have multiple changes in their career; working lives will be longer and more varied; workplaces will be more multi-generational; flexible forms of employment and self-employment are becoming more prevalent than before.

What does this all mean for the way in which we educate and support young people as they begin to plan their careers whilst still at school or college? The short answer is a lot! Despite that, there is still a heavy reliance on careers programmes prioritising CV building, interview skills, work experience, etc. Whilst these remain important aspects of career planning, there is a sense of complacency in focusing too narrowly on them in the way we perceive career education and guidance at a time when there is a revolution taking place in patterns of employment and a global and competitive market place for skills.

Career Connect is gradually turning this curve, seeking to modernise and revolutionise the way we think about how we support people to be more effective career decision makers and career path managers. This is not a quick or easy transformation. For the most part policy making at a national level and at a local level, as well as in schools and colleges has been stuck in a traditional groove; focused on how individuals should present themselves, rather than how they should understand, manage and improve themselves. 

The recent and welcome renewed focus on careers through the creation of a national career strategy, including the 8 Gatsby Benchmarks, offers an opportunity to change this. Career Connect has started with the realisation that we can do a lot more to support young people as they set out on shaping their future than just helping them to identify career goals and develop the tools to achieve them. We can also enable them to manage the demands that working life places upon them as individuals. Evidence abounds of the high numbers of young people who drop out of college, university, or employment. This is often put down to poor choice or inadequate planning and preparation, and whilst this is undoubtedly part of the picture, it is not the only, nor the most important explanation. The pressure of making decisions is familiar to everyone, for some, depending on the circumstances, they may be straight forward. For others, assimilating large amounts of information and making a reasoned judgement can present a huge challenge. Most people would attest to the stress involved in having to make big decisions in our lives; this may be increased by having to take account of the expectations of others, whether this is parents or teachers, etc.

In the New Economics Foundations Foresight Project on the evidence base for improving young peoples wellbeing, the research presents the Five ways to wellbeing as:

The report describes the concept of wellbeing as feeling good and functioning well. In Schools Week recently, Damian Hinds the Secretary of State for Education, similarly set out his five foundations for character education, in which he voices his concern that that too few disadvantaged children have access to activities that build the “character and resilience” they need to succeed in education. But, this goes beyond education and is a requirement for life. Interestingly Hindsevidence base is drawn in large part from the application of character education in public schools.

At Career Connect we have also begun to factor in the parallel evidence arising from concerns over the growing incidence of poor mental health and its effects on children and young people at the formative stage of their development, for there is a connection between the stress of learning, examinations, competition, including modern working environments and the failure to succeed

Report of the Children and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Taskforce[1] the key thematic areas for development are identified as:

Our approach is not one of treatment or clinical intervention, rather it is a preventative model that provides people with an understanding of, and training in, becoming more mentally strong as part of one’s education and development. It places the emphasis on building resilience and promoting good mental health, by supporting young people to adopt and maintain behaviours that offer protection against negative pressures. Taking each of the steps in career planning, decision making and execution in turn, we examine how they can be more effective as individuals in managing these by training in the skills of thinking, behaving, acting, responding and reflecting.

The fact is that these skills are all the more important to learn and practice in a world where technology offers infinite shortcuts as we 'google' answers rather than examine the questions, where we can set the SatNav to take us to places without exploring the route or appreciating the journey! They are not just applicable to career planning, they are relevant across our whole lives and are at risk of being drowned out by modern lifestyles. A recent article in The Guardian newspaper: Six Ways to Raise a Resilient Child, written by Dr. Rangan Chatterjee, quotes Emma Saddleton, helpline manager at Young Minds, who describes resilience as “The ability to overcome difficult experiences and be shaped positively by them.” Chatterjee goes on to say that our brains respond to the information around us, so resilience can be taught, modelled and nurtured at any age. “By doing this, [Saddleton] through strong support networks and encouraging communication, we can help young people understand when they feel down and know what they can do to make themselves feel better.”

Career Connect's approach is similarly based on a practical methodology and skill-set designed to develop the mindset and approach to effective decision making and action/interaction needed to maximise personal effectiveness. One part of this, for example, is facing up to how we overcome obstacles and manage setbacks, as they are a frequent feature of everyday life. This is where resilience is important, training individuals to avoid, or bounce back from, adversity. Life control and emotional control are amongst the personality traits central to mastering mental toughness, as is commitment, the ability to persevere when following a path or working towards achieving a goal. They combine with confidence and challenge to make up the 4 Cs of Mental Toughness as defined by Professor Peter Clough1, the architect of the MTQ psychometric measure, which we have used as part of our programme.

The programme is underpinned by an understanding of Fixed and Growth Mindsets and Learned Helplessness and Learned Optimism, theories of psychologists, Carol Dweck and Martin Seligman, respectively. And, we go beyond these learned behaviours to incorporate an understanding of Neuroplasticity: the way in which the human brain can adapt, change and reshape itself to grow new neural circuits that have positive and lasting benefits for our thinking and behaviour. Our programme models a number of related behaviours and skills that are central to achieving wellbeing and functioning positively. These approaches are as relevant to young people aspiring to professional careers via university or higher apprenticeships, as they are for those who are managing very different life circumstances, such as young people with special educational needs or disabilities, young offenders and young people leaving public care, where career decisions start with major adjustments to lifestyles including the search for stability, confidence and acceptance.

We have piloted this approach and refined it through successive projects, New Horizons and Unlocking Potential, both of which were supported by the use of Social Impact Bonds (SiBs) as risk capital in innovating and enhancing the skills available to us in our workforce. Both projects were highly successful in achieving verifiable benefits for the majority of the participants (more than 4,000 per programme), outperforming the outcome targets agreed with the DWP, who underwrote the SiBs, and maximising the return on their investment for the social investors.

Our aim now is to further develop our approach to building mental toughness and resilience by learning from what worked well and less well in these programmes. We believe there is great benefit to be had by enabling young people from an early age to understand, adopt and hone the skills and behaviours that will be protective and progressive in helping them face and manage the challenges before them as they enter adult and working life. We will need to attract funding that goes beyond short term project funding (both Social Impact Bonds were of 3-year duration, set by the DWP). We are keen to discuss this with partners and commissioners who have an interest in supporting the life chances of young people by making them agents of their own destinies.

- An article from Kieran Gordon (CEO, Career Connect) 

1 Peter Clough, Developing Mental Toughness in young people. Edited by Doug Strycharczyk and Peter Clough. Karnac Books, 2014
[[1] Future in Mind – Promoting, protecting and improving our children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. Dept of Health NHS England, 2015]

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