Adviser on the Edge

Spatial perspectives on career guidance and development

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“What we have is an attitude shortage not a skills shortage”

Yesterday morning on the plane to Inverness I had one of those ‘plane conversations’ with the man on the seat next to me. He was telling me about his role in recruitment for a large company in the North of Scotland. And, being a careers adviser, I was asking him about what he looks for in applicants.

Now, in the careers world, there is a great deal of talk about skills – employability skills, transferrable skills, and technical skills. And then there are things like ‘skills gaps’ and ‘skills shortages’ that help to explain why we can have relatively high unemployment but employers can still struggle to fill jobs.

So, my companion and I were talking about this, and he told me that in his opinion “what we have is an attitude shortage, not a skills shortage”. His phrase really struck me, and got me wondering, although in my work as a careers adviser I talk a great deal about skills acquisition and articulation how much attention do I pay to attitude?

Perhaps it is the case that “skills” are easier to talk about – we tend to assume skills are ‘things’ that we can develop or collect (like clothes or books or other objects), but attitude is normally assumed to be more fundamental to a person. Indeed this is one of the things that my employer-friend was saying – that you can train someone in a skill, but personality is something that is more essential, more fixed. And where this assumption of personality as an essential thing makes it very desirable for an employer, it also makes it much harder to talk about as a careers adviser – after all how far can we or should we get involved in development of personality?

However, thinking about this I remembered reading Holmes’ (2001) critique of the skills agenda – he says, basically, that skills are not ‘things’ that we can collect, ‘skills’ are constructed through our social interaction and when we talk about skills, there is always some kind of reference back to the person behind them, to their identity. So, I was thinking, that this might work the other way around too – what if personality attributes aren’t ‘fixed’ and aren’t distinct from our activities? And then I remembered Susan Jeffers’ highly influential self-development book Feel the Fear and do it Anyway in which she emphasises that confidence can be built through actions – by ‘feeling the fear and doing it anyway’.

So, coming back to my companion on the plane… His comment about the attitude shortage rather than a skills shortage may have been a witty and acute criticism of the skills agenda; it may be a warning against a temptation in education and guidance to treat skills as ‘things’ that can be developed through a ‘check list’ approach. But on the other hand treating skills and attitude as separate things may overlook the fact that more often than not these are communicative concepts that are used to talk about the same kind of area – identity and self-development.

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When not getting a job is a good thing…

There’s a saying in the Highlands and Islands’ that ‘what’s for you won’t go past you’. Now, when it comes to helping students and graduates prepare for job interviews this is a phrase I often hear – normally at the end of a conversation, almost as a kind of self-reassurance by the student that if it’s the right job they’ll get it and if it isn’t they won’t. The phrase may be reassuring and placating, but it doesn’t seem very logical or scientific and can seem to sit uneasily with my work, given that I spend a great deal of time helping students prepare for interviews, polishing and practising answers to give themselves the best chance possible. However, when it comes down to it, I do fundamentally believe that ‘what’s for you won’t go past you,’ and that sometimes not getting a job is the best outcome.

I’ve been thinking about this recently after a conversation at the airport with a friend who was returning from an interview where she had been unsuccessful. What we were talking about is how if you present yourself as the best version of you, if you show the employer what you have to offer, and then you don’t get the job, then it is probably because of a poor fit between you and the employer. And that this is okay.

We like to think of our careers as a linear progression, but sometimes being 'knocked back' can be very helpful

We like to think of our careers as a linear progression, but sometimes being ‘knocked back’ can be very helpful

What I admired in my friend was the effort she had gone to preparing for the interview, and then travelling down (it took two days from Orkney), only to find out within minutes of the interview starting that the job wasn’t what she wanted. And that rather than feeling angry or frustrated with the time she’d spent preparing, the loss of holidays she’d had to take, and the expense of attending the interview, she seemed calm and relaxed. This, for her, was a good experience. She could see that preparing for the interview had allowed her to remind herself of her strengths and skills, by going to the interview she had remembered what kind of work she liked and had got a different perspective on her current job (valuing it more than she had previously). Going for a job and not getting it had actually helped her focus on what she wanted, what she was good at, and helped her to see a way forward in her current job.

I’m not sure that personally I could have been as calm as she was, but I do know that in my past not getting jobs has sometimes been the best thing that could have happened – not getting a job in Devon ten years ago meant, for example, that I applied for work in Orkney, and now I have a job I love in a place I love and a lifestyle that I love. Whether I didn’t get the job because it wasn’t a good ‘fit’ for me, or whether it went past me because it wasn’t for me doesn’t really matter – what matters is that it worked out in the end. It can be very painful at the time especially if you are rejected for a job (rather than turning it down as my friend had), but being resilient, flexible and optimistic strike me as important attitudes to cultivate if we can.