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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…


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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

Shetland

(n=120)

Orkney

(n=211)

Highlands and Islands

(n=3607)

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.

Employment

  • 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.
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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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RETI Conference

Cover of the RETI 2015 conference programme

Cover of the RETI 2015 conference programme

The week before last I was lucky enough to attend the latest RETI conference, being held right here in Orkney (hosted by the Centre for Nordic Studies).

RETI stands for Réseau d’Excellence des Territoires Insulaires and is a network of island based universities, of which the University of the Highlands and Islands is one. The conference itself focused on the “Impact of culture heritage on economic development in island destinations” and included delegates from across the world.

The paper I gave was titled: Migration, education and employment decisions of islanders – understanding the role of sociocultural factors in shaping individual decisions and economic outcomes in Orkney and Shetland

And this was the abstract:

Migration, and particularly youth migration, as many commentators have noted, is a common feature of island communities. The ‘missing generation’ of young people is a cause for concern among policy makers in the island communities of Scotland, including Orkney and Shetland. Retention and attraction of young educated professionals is seen as a vital part of increasing levels of human capital and the economic potential of island communities. Therefore understanding the motivations for migration decisions of young island leavers as well as those who stay and return is important in order to inform necessary policy interventions. Research in this area has typically focused on how young people leave island communities for economic reasons and the pursuit of better education and career opportunities; those who return (usually later in life) are shown to move for primarily lifestyle reasons. However, as this paper will demonstrate, migration pathways and decisions are complex, and as well as economic motivations, individual differences and social and cultural influences are also important. Split into two parts this paper will first of all offer some discussion of contemporary career theory and the work of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to identify how wider social and cultural influences may impact on the career and migration decisions of young islanders. The second part of the paper will present some initial findings of a current research project into the decisions and pathways of higher education entrants from Orkney and Shetland. Qualitative data will be presented from interviews with recent graduates alongside analysis of statistical data from previous graduate cohorts in order to explore some of the sociocultural influences that lie beneath the migration and career decisions of higher education students from the islands.

The paper generated some really interesting discussion and gave me a whole lot of ideas to follow up, which was great!


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Cornwall to Orkney: was it destiny….?!

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“Positive image is vital for the West” my prize winning schoolgirl essay published In the Western Morning News, May 24th 1997

Tidying up, I just found an essay I wrote when I was 16 which was published in the Western Morning News after it was placed second in the Western Morning News – South West Enterprise Limited Business Essay competition in 1997. This is the opening of the essay, I think you’ll see why it made me laugh….!

“As a whole the Westcountry has a poor economy, characterised by high levels of unemployment and migration, and decreasing levels of industry. To improve the economy these processes have to be reversed.

To do this the area has to develop a policy committed to improving further education facilities and communications, particularly in the form of information technology and Internet links.”

I go on to argue:

‘One of the major reasons that talented young people leave the region is the lack of further education facilities. The universities in Plymouth and Exeter offer good opportunities, but are still somewhat distant for students in the far north or south of the region. So further education facilities should be made more available within the Westcountry.

To do this a branch of an existing university could be built to service the remoter students, perhaps on the north coast around Barnstaple…. Universities in the Westcountry could also develop intern[et] links allowing students to participate in further education while  at home…. In Scotland the University of the Highlands is developing this method of computer links, which it uses with some success…’

See why I found this funny?! Apparently regional development and  the role of the university sector has been of significant interest since  I was in my teens. What surprises me looking at this is that my comments preceded the development of the Combined Universities in Cornwall initiative and looked to the University of the Highlands and Islands as a model. Who would have thought that seventeen years later I would be working for the University of the Highlands and Islands, working on practical delivery of careers guidance through web technologies, and studying a PhD in higher education and migration in a rural community…?! Who would also have thought that Combined Universities in Cornwall would have taken off, and that now I look to them as an alternative model of education delivery in a rural area….? What I am struck by is how my perspectives on these issues have changed very little, even if my writing style and acacdemic rigour have (hopefully) improved somewhat!

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Me and the other prize winner at the awards ceremony…. Don’t we look young!

Within the essay my other main argument is the need to stimulate new businesses, and particularly skills based industries in the region. I state that skills based industries ‘will employ highly skilled labourers, who generally prefer to live in an attractive rural than urban environment’ and I ‘discourage extra road building as this will lead to a deterioration of the environment, which, if anything would discourage the skilled industries’. These are interesting ideas, and I suspect come from a projection of my own desire to live in a rural environment. From my perspective now I wouldn’t agree with my younger self, instead I believe that some people will want to live in rural environments and some people would prefer to live in urban environments. However, it did remind me of some debates about how to quantify the value of natural resources and to account for this in calculations of the value of infrastructure development. The role of image, culture, and place making which is almost the subtext to my essay is also very much part of debates on how to attract migrants to areas.

I had one other argument in my essay too – which was about extending and diversifying the tourist base for the westcountry. As part of this argument I suggested extending the tourist season and thought that ‘a high profile advertising strategy could be employed, such as that used to attract tourists to the Scottish Highlands in  Autumn’. Which again made me smile: sitting, as I am in my home in the Scottish islands looking out over a rather dreich autum / winter afternoon. Ever felt that somehow your destiny is mapped out for you….?!