Adviser on the Edge

careers in island communities: research, theory and practice

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Talking Careers in the Faroe Islands

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to deliver a keynote speech at a conference on careers guidance policy and practice which took place the Faroe Islands. The conference was titled ”Vegleiðing – nær og fjar” and it was supported by the Nordiskt nätverk för vuxnas lärande (NVL). You can see full details of the conference including copies of the presentations on the NVL website.  I took the family too and we made a bit of a holiday out of it – and what a fantastic time we had!


If memory serves me this is Norðdepil in the North of the islands.

Of course it was wonderful to be able to explore the islands, they are truly very beautiful, and if we hadn’t been slightly encumbered with a small child who just wanted to jump in puddles (!) we would have loved to walk in the hills too… But it was also great to speak at the conference and meet people involved in careers guidance policy and practice in the islands and to compare notes with our experience in the Scottish islands.

My presentation at the conference focused on islands and career development. I broadly structured the presentation by considering some of the key features of small islands (drawing on the island studies literature) and then by considering the impact of these features on the career pathways of islanders (drawing on some of the work of Ronald Sultana on guidance in small states particularly as well as my own research). Throughout the presentation I was concerned to challenge some of the deficit model of islands – the idea that islands are limited (in space, in people, in job opportunities) and that therefore there is a lack in terms of career (and life) pathways. Instead I focused on how islands present particular contexts and as such are marked by perhaps different career  pathways but these are not necessarily “worse” . This is something I’ve increasingly been thinking about.

faroes 3

Small islands, limited opportunities? Maybe not… this is Nólsoy.

It was a total pleasure to present my thoughts, but the best part of the conference was definitely meeting people and comparing notes about our various contexts. The conference didn’t just include people from the Faroes, but also Åland and Greenland (as other self-governing regions) so it was a fantastic opportunity to share ideas and learn from each other. It was also great to be able to explore the islands over the coming days, to take part in Culture Night in Tórshavn by presenting a shortened version of my keynote (I felt very honoured!) and really to take the opportunity to learn as much as possible about a community that in some ways was so familiar to me and also so different.

faroes 2.jpg

Looking back at Tórshavn from the boat. The maritime context is a key feature of similarity for island communities.

During our time in the Faroes I was struck by how many people had Scottish connections, and  had visited Scotland – in fact our flight to the Faroes from Edinburgh was precisely the same duration as the flight from Edinburgh to Orkney so in some ways the islands are as close as we are to mainland Scotland (in time at least!). And then of course the Norröna used to call in Shetland as it sailed from the Faroes to Denmark so quite a few people had visited Shetland too. There were other links as well, and my favourite moment was probably visiting a print studio where the artist showed our rather grumpy child (not an art fan, at least not yet!) a stuffed oystercatcher to distract her. He told us the Faroese name for the bird ‘tjaldur’ which I had to get him to say again because it sounded exactly the same as the Orkney word ‘chalder’ (or ‘shalder’). The Orcadian word, like many Orcadian words comes from old Norse, so it is no surprise really that the words are the same, but hearing it spoken really brought home to me how our shared Atlantic history can still be traced in the present. It also made me think about lots of other research that I have come across exploring links in the North Atlantic region – talks on things like knitting patterns (by Liz Lovick), archaeology, even the tuning of the St Magnus Cathedral bells (by Gemma McGregor). And there again is another link… St Magnus churches seem to be all over the Faroes! It was lovely (if a little strange) to visit the ‘other’ St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkjubøur while we were in the islands.

faroes 4.jpg

Oystercatcher eggs outside the church door at Saksun… In Orkney we have an oystercatcher nesting on a roundabout. They choose the strangest places.

Of course there are differences too, and one really significant difference I think is that the Faroes have a great deal more autonomy than Orkney and Shetland. In practical terms they are self-governing, having their own parliament, and setting their own laws. They also still have their own language, whereas Norn died out in the Northern Isles many years ago. Then there is the fact they are so much further from Denmark (they are still technically part of the Kingdom of Denmark) than Orkney and Shetland are to the Scottish mainland. Being a self-governing region in particular makes for a really interesting context in terms of careers guidance because of the need to define their own guidance agenda including policy, training and research. And it was a pleasure for me to be part of conversations during the week about the future for careers guidance in the islands. In comparison policy and practice in Orkney and Shetland are very much determined by Scottish policy and practice – although perhaps the recent Islands Bill might start to impact in this area.

In terms of career development in the islands again what I heard was in some ways so familiar to me, and yet also had some differences… Of course I heard about problems of youth out-migration for higher education, I heard about gendered patterns of migration which are perhaps even more acute than in Orkney and Shetland, and I heard about occupational plurality and people pursuing “chameleon careers” (Sultana, 2006). I also enjoyed speaking with the University of the Faroes, which shares something of a similar purpose and mission to the University of the Highlands and Islands. However I also heard about some differences – I heard for example of instances where young people didn’t want to leave the islands because they were competing at an international level in Faroese sports teams – of course Orkney and Shetland don’t compete internationally* so that same appeal just isn’t there! Also seeing the range of prospectuses in one of the guidance departments in the school I realised just how international some student pathways are, and although most students study in Denmark many do study elsewhere – in Orkney and Shetland in comparison almost all students study in Scotland, with very few going to England and even fewer (I’m not sure if there are any?) going abroad, at least not for undergraduate studies.


Truly international prospectuses at a school in the Faroes….

We had such a great time in the Faroes, and professionally it was a really productive visit too. I left the islands reminded about how much we can learn from each other as island communities that share many similarities but also, because of the particularities of islands, have differences too. And this is what I think is potentially so fruitful, when island communities work together – in our similarities we find common ground, and yet our differences help us to think outside of our contexts, potentially helping us to understand ourselves better and find areas for innovation and development.



*that is unless you count the Island Games which are currently being held in Gotland. Incidentally I see the Faroe Islands and Åland both beat Orkney and Shetland, but at least Orkney’s in good company next to Greenland in the medals table…


Nordic Egalitarianism….?

I’ve just been reading a paper by Agnete Wiborg (2001) about the experience of students from rural Norway in their transition to higher education. A recurrent theme in the paper is about the egalitarian nature of Norwegian society and how this is a challenge for students who progress to higher education, because they feel that they have very little in common with those they leave behind, but find it difficult to talk in terms of these social differences – becoming as a result quite ambivalent about their transition to higher education.

One of the students in this research refers to the ‘Law of Jante’, which I hadn’t heard of before but which is summarised by Wiborg like this:

“The ‘Law of Jante’ formulated in a book by the Danish author Axel Sandemose, concerns social regulations in a small town, and says that ‘You should not think you are anybody’, ‘You should not think you know more than us’, and ‘You should not think you are better than us’. In a way this can be seen as a formulation of aspects of Norwegian egalitarian ideology.”                                               (Wiborg, 2001: 29)

I thought this was really interesting because in my first piece of research in Orkney (for my masters) I found evidence of a similar cultural egalitarianism meaning that recent graduates living in Orkney tended to downplay their higher education experiences. At the time I linked this with some evidence from rural studies that smaller rural communities tend to be characterised by certain values – with egalitarianism being one (Alexander, 2013).


One of our ferries – the Hjaltland – with its viking livery. Picture courtesy of Ronnie Robertson

However, I am increasingly wondering whether this rural tendency to egalitarianism may be accentuated in the communities of Orkney and Shetland because of a potential Norwegian cultural inheritance? After all Orkney and Shetland were actually annexed by the Norwegian Crown from the 10th century and only became part of Scotland in 1468 (as part of a dowry). Even after that date remnants of Norn language remained right into the 18th and possibly 19th centuries in the islands, and a great deal of the material culture of Orkney and Shetland dates back to viking times – such as the runic inscriptions in the tomb of Maeshowe in Orkney, the St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney and Jarlshof in Shetland (to name but a few). Even in recent times the link with Norway is strong – with the “Shetland bus” a key communication channel between the UK and Norway during the Second World War, and with industries such as oil and gas and fishing based in the North Sea attracting islanders and Norwegians alike. Indeed there are ‘friendship associations’ in both island groups with Norway, and exchange programmes have been regularly available for young people from the islands to visit communities such as Voss and Hordaland. On top of all of this the world famous “Up Helly Aa” festival in Shetland is a celebration of the islands’ viking inheritance, and even the ferries to the mainland of Scotland have a viking painted on the side of them!

The Norse cultural inheritances of the Northern Isles is something I think about relatively often – especially as I have colleagues working at the Centre for Nordic Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands for whom this is a main concern (they even offer an MLitt in Viking Studies!). However, I haven’t really seen any direct links into my work (on the contemporary societies of the islands and how they influence the choices of young people in the islands) until now… Now I’m beginning to wonder if there is scope in considering not just historical links, but the contemporary social context of the Nordic countries in terms of a potentially similar social context in the islands of Orkney and Shetland. Thinking about this makes me quite excited to follow the work of colleagues researching careers guidance and career development in Norway and other Nordic countries. In particular reading a recent blog by Ingrid Bardsdatter Bakke I was struck by the potential similarities in some of her findings working with a community in a relatively remote part of Norway and some of my work…


Alexander, Rosie (2013) ‘Here you have to be a bit more fluid and willing to do different things’: Graduate career development in rural communities’ Journal of the National Institute of Career Education and Counselling, Issue 31, pp.36-42

Wiborg, Agnete (2001) ‘Education, mobility and ambivalence. Rural students in higher education’ YOUNG 9 (1) pp. 23-40


Migration, education and employment: socio-cultural factors in shaping individual decisions in Orkney and Shetland

So, my latest paper has just been published in the Island Studies Journal. The paper is titled: Migration, education and employment: socio-cultural factors in shaping individual
decisions and economic outcomes in Orkney and Shetland. The paper unpacks some of the theoretical background to my research and discusses some of the initial findings from the first interviews in the project. I have summarised some of the key points from my paper below.
Island studies journal

Front cover of the Island Studies Journal Vol. 11 No.1

So in terms of the background to the project I start by discussing the potential role of place in shaping individual decisions. In order to do this I draw on the theoretical framework of Bourdieu, who broadly looks at the way that our social environment can become internalised and influence the decisions that we make (the internalised social environment is our ‘habitus’). Through this use of Bourdieu I challenge rational models of decision making which tend to assume that career and migration decisions are made on a purely economic basis, and suggest that social and cultural aspects of our environment also impact on our decisions.
Looking at the findings of the research project so far I cover two areas: higher education destinations and graduate destinations. Analysing the interviews with higher education students from Orkney and Shetland, these are the main findings I discuss:
HE destinations
  • “Proximity” is important in deciding where to study for university. This proximity is, however constructed in terms of social and cultural familiarity as well as simply geographical distance.
  • Personal challenge is an important part of going to university. Students typically chose locations which had an element of challenge but which were ‘close enough’ to remain manageable.
Graduate destinations
  • Graduates have typically developed more geographical confidence through being at university and at the point of graduation describe being able to live anywhere
  • However graduates still lack professional confidence, and typically see the first years after graduation as a key period to build up their professional experience. For many graduates it is felt that this may be best done away from their home communities.
  • There is a strong theme of wishing to return to the islands at some point in the future, this is often associated with having children and settling down, with the islands being identified in terms of familiarity, homeliness and comfort.
  • Some graduates do return home immediately, either viewing this in terms of ‘settling down’ or in terms of having a break from their studies and recuperating at home before moving away again. However even the graduates who return home more permanently  typically do not rule out perhaps ‘going south’ again in the future.
I finish the paper with further discussion and indicate a few areas for further research. In particular I note that there is a potential interrelation of place-based habitus with other forms of habitus – including occupational and class habitus. Class in particular is something I’m becoming increasingly interested in (as you will have seen from my previous blog) so you can probably expect to see more from me on that particular topic in the not too distant future!
I hope you enjoy the paper and as always if you’d like to comment to let me know what you think that would be fabulous – your comments are fantastic for pushing my thinking on these issues!


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Young People’s Attitudes and Aspirations in the Islands

So, over the last couple of months Highlands and Islands Enterprise have been publishing a range of reports on the attitudes and aspirations of young people in the Highlands and Islands. The research consisted of a survey of young people (aged 15-30), some online focus groups and consultations with a range of stakeholders (I’m rather proud to be named as one of the consulted stakeholders!). As well as a general report on aspirations and attitudes in the Highlands and Islands, separate reports have been completed for Orkney and Shetland, as well as for other areas.

Over the last week I have been reading and digesting these reports and in this blog will attempt to draw out some key findings.

Orkney and Shetland Stayers and Leavers

Firstly, and significantly for my research, the report categorises young people in terms of their planned migration statuses. These are summarised in the table below:

Which of the following best describes you?

Expressed in terms of % of total excluding potential returners, new residents

and none of the above





Highlands and Islands


Committed stayer: I live in the H&I and I plan on living and working here 55 58 43
Reluctant stayer: I live in the H&I; I would prefer to leave but I don’t think I will be able to 3 6 5
Reluctant leaver: I live in the H&I; I would prefer to stay but I don’t think I will be able to live and work here 18 10 13
Committed leaver: I live in the H&I, but I plan to leave and live and work elsewhere 24 27 40

(adapted from HIE 2015a, HIE 2015b)

What we can see here is that young people in Orkney and Shetland are considerably more likely to be ‘committed stayers’ and less likely to be ‘committed leavers’. In Orkney young people are more likely to be stayers than in Shetland, and in Shetland there is a high proportion of reluctant leavers.

Curiously in both Orkney and Shetland the main towns (Lerwick and Kirkwall) have greater proportions of reluctant stayers, and less committed leavers or committed stayers than in the other (often more rural areas) or the islands. This suggests some regional variation within Orkney and Shetland.

When looking at future aspirations, the pattern of commitment to the islands remains marked, so over half of young people in the islands want to be in the islands in five years’ time (which compares to 36% for the Highlands and Islands region as a whole). These levels are even higher when young people are asked to consider where they wish to be by the age of 35 with 57% from Shetland and 65% from Orkney wanting to be in their local area (significantly higher than regional average of 33%).

Overall these figures demonstrate that young people in Orkney and Shetland view their communities very positively, and although some wish to leave many leavers also wish to return to the islands in later life. These figures also show some variations between Orkney and Shetland, suggesting perhaps slightly higher commitment to staying in the islands or returning to the islands in later life in Orkney than in Shetland. However, Orkney also has higher levels of committed leavers, so perhaps as has been suggested in previous research from HIE, there may be a pattern of ‘planned return’ in Orkney.

Understanding these patterns

The rest of the reports offer some interesting features of young people’s perceptions which might help explain these patterns. Some interesting points are:

Perceptions of the community

  • Young people from Orkney and Shetland have the highest levels of pride in their local community of all areas in the Highlands and Islands region. Similarly there are very high percentages of young people in these island groups reporting that the communities are a good place to raise a family (94% in Orkney, 96% in Shetland). And compared to the Highlands and Islands as a region, Orkney and Shetland are felt to be the safest areas.
  • However, 25% of young people ‘strongly disagree’ that the islands are places where it’s okay to be different – although this is in line with the regional averages.

Further and Higher Education

  • Compared to the regional averages, school leavers from Shetland are slightly less likely to want to go on to further education (college or university), this compares to Orkney where young people are considerably more likely to want to progress.
  • Young people in Orkney and Shetland are more positive about the local further and higher education offerings than in the rest of the region, believing there is a good range of courses and that these are well aligned to employment opportunities.
  • Young people in Orkney are more familiar with the offering of UHI than regionally, in Shetland proportions are similar to the regional averages.
  • Higher levels of young people in Orkney and Shetland would be happy to attend UHI. The cost of studying in Shetland is perceived less favourably and in Orkney more favourably than the regional averages. This could perhaps be due to the high accommodation costs in Shetland and the geographical distances that some young people in Shetland would need to cover to get to Lerwick.


  • Awareness of graduate placements in Orkney and Shetland is low, although proportions are similar to regional levels.
  • In comparison opportunities for apprenticeships are viewed much more strongly than in the region as a whole – in Shetland 69% and in Orkney 60% think opportunities are quite good (compared to 49% regionally)
  • The level of local employment opportunities and pay levels are also viewed more positively than in the region as a whole – 64% of young people in Shetland and 51% in Orkney said local employment opportunities were quite or very good – higher than 35% regional average. In terms of pay, 39% in Orkney and 57% in Shetland said this was quite or very good, higher than the regional average of 27%.
  • In Shetland the labour market appears to be viewed more positively in Orkney, with men in Shetland being much more positive than women. There is some suggestion that this could be due to the strength of the male dominated (and well remunerated) oil and gas sector in Shetland.
  • The perception of pay levels in Shetland gets more positive with age, but in Orkney perceptions get less positive with age. Similarly the prospects for career development are viewed more positively with age in Shetland and less positively in Orkney.
phone pics 2015 july 3460

Lerwick: in the left of the picture is an accommodation barge brought to Shetland to help house workers for the new gas plant. Although the strength of the oil and gas industry may result in positive impacts such as the availability of work, negative impacts such as the cost of accommodation may also result.

Other factors

  • Housing is more of an issue than regionally in Shetland and less of an issue in Orkney.
  • Public transport is rated strongly for availability but very poorly for affordability in both island groups. Notably as well as plane travel being considered unaffordable, so is boat travel with approximately one third in Orkney and half in Shetland considering the ferry unaffordable. This contrasts to other areas in the region such as the Outer Hebrides where the rate is considerably lower because of the ‘Road Equivalent Tariff’ being offered.
  • Broadband speeds and access do not appear to be a significant concern, but mobile connectivity is a fairly big issue in Orkney in Shetland, with these two island groups rating mobile connectivity the worst in the whole region.
  • The availability of arts and leisure facilities are very well rated in both island groups.
  • Although generally the perceptions of the island groups are very positive perhaps somewhat strangely in both islands there are lower proportions of young people than regionally believing the region is a better place to live now than five years ago, and there is also greater pessimism about the future.

Overall the research demonstrates that there is significant regional variability in the perceptions of young people. Although both island groups are viewed very positively overall, there are significant differences in things like how the labour market is perceived and housing issues. It is quite possible that some of these differences in perception are due to material differences between the communities – for example the different geographical position and layout of the island groups, and the different labour markets (with the impact of the oil and gas sector on Shetland specifically being noted throughout the research).

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Stats busting: the Higher Education experiences of students from Orkney and Shetland

So, as part of my PhD I have been looking at the destinations of higher education graduates who were originally based in Orkney and Shetland. I have looked at data collected as part of the annual Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey over a five year period and some initial observations were published recently in the latest Graduate Market Trends.

Basically I make several observations:

  1. In terms of which Higher Education Institutions students are graduating from we can see that institutions based in Aberdeen are very popular (accounting for about 25% of graduates). The University of Edinburgh is also popular, and the University of the Highlands and Islands (considering its size) is also very popular – accounting for the same sort of proportion of graduates as institutions such as Glasgow and Strathclyde which are significantly larger institutions. The results can be seen in the graph below:

university by domicile

2. Some subjects seem to be relatively more popular with students from the islands than among their Scottish counterparts (e.g. creative arts and design, and education) and some less popular (e.g. business and computing). The results are shown below:

subject choice3. A surprisingly high number stay in or return to the islands after graduation, with almost 40% of those whose location is known six months after graduation being back in the islands. This suggests a more complex migration picture than a simple ‘brain drain’ from the islands.

4. There is a marked difference between the proportion  of men and women progressing to higher education, with approximately 63% of graduates from the islands being women. Women also appear more likely to move back to / stay in the islands after graduation.

Now, given that the numbers in this sample group are very small it is difficult to draw firm conclusions from these observations. It is also important to note that in order to get a big enough sample size I have used historical data from the last five years, and so the experiences of students now may have moved on slightly from when this data was gathered. However these findings do give an indication of some interesting areas that may merit further research….

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Cross-cultural research: careers in island communities

In my last blog I was discussing how being at the ECADOC summer school got me thinking about the potential for collaborative research looking at cultural differences in the impact of rurality on career development. In this blog I want to consider what this research might look like….

So, during the ECADOC week one of the keynote speeches was from Ronald Sultana who talked about his experience of doing research in different cultures, particularly in Europe and in the Middle East. He challenged us to think about how our research relies on mainstream notions of careers guidance that may not be shared by all communities or cultures. For example, we are largely used to talking about ‘careers’ that are about individual choice and self-fulfilment, however these concepts may not be shared by everyone – for example in some contexts it may be more common to talk not so much in terms of careers but livelihoods, where work is a “curse”, and where notions of individual choice are not as salient as community expectations, and determination by external factors. His examples of different contexts included Maori contexts, Indian and Arab contexts and class cultures. Interestingly he also included ‘small states’ in this set of contexts, considering particularly how in small states career choice may be different  to commonly assumed ‘norms’ because of the scale. So for example, in small states it is common to have a ‘chameleon career’ – that is one characterised by shifting career identities, occupational multiplicity, and shifting expertise. In addition the small community may lead to a career that is more influenced by personal ties, with employers commonly familiar with applicants prior to application, and sometimes exhibiting favouritism based on personal knowledge.

Now, Sultanta’s approach is obviously very interesting to me, he is the only person I have come across to have articulated some of the experience of career development and careers guidance within small communities. However, what this also got me thinking is about the intersection of different cultures – for example, class cultures and small states, how do notions of career differ between classes within a small community? And how do notions of career differ between different small states with different cultures? So for example, Sultana himself is from Malta, so how do Maltese notions of careers differ, say from those in Orkney and Shetland? At the most basic level, I bet that Maltese students don’t feel that some of the appeal of moving away is for warmer weather, like some of the students I interviewed back in April! Indeed when I met Ronald at the ECADOC conference he mentioned how escaping the heat of Malta for the relative cool of Paris was a particularly attractive feature of the summer school!

Considering how different cultures intersect I’m sure there is scope for some kind of comparative study, looking at the experience of different island groups for example in different parts of the world. Perhaps something for the future?

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Rasing children: Islands are best!

So, readers of this blog may have noticed something of a hiatus over the last few months….. What is the reason for this? There’s a clue in the picture below…

DSC_0002So now baby-Alexander has arrived and we’re becoming more settled as a family I am back to blogging!

The strange thing is that while I’ve been on blog-break, a news story broke about how the islands of Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles are the best places to bring up children (isn’t that strange timing?!). The rankings were based on the Children’s Quality of Life Survey, where variables covering education, urbanisation, labour, housing and well-being were summed to give an overall score. There is more information about the survey on the Lloyds banking group website. Orkney was top based on factors such as primary school class sizes, education spending per pupil, population densities etc.

Now, this is an interesting report, partly because of what it says about our collective assumptions about what a ‘good childhood’ looks like (why were these variables selected and not others?). But what also interests me is how this report chimes with a key finding from my previous research: that for island graduates returning to Orkney is associated with ‘settling down’ and having children. What this new national report shows is that the idea that ‘Orkney is a good place to raise children’ is not unique to graduates living in Orkney (the participant group of the previous research) but is actually much wider: based on collective narratives about what a ‘good childhood’ looks like (and consequently the identification of ‘good places’ for child-rearing).

Academically this is interesting and leaves me plenty to ponder, but personally it is also rather reassuring to know that young Baby-Alexander is making her first steps in the ‘best place’ to raise children!