It's a simple fact of teenage life that your parents know nothing. Boring, out-of-touch, trying to be your friend on Facebook (as if anyone uses that anymore, duh!) - you can't trust their opinions on anything. Unless, it seems, you're a teenager looking for help with some of the biggest and most important things in life: your education and future career. A recent report by the Association Of Colleges found that parents were the first port-of-call for most young people when seeking careers advice, with 70% saying they trusted mum and dad, compared to 57% who went to their teachers.
So does this prove that parents really do know best after all? Well, not really, since the report also revealed that parents are probably even less in tune with the vicissitudes of the current jobs market than they are with the dubstep scene, with AOC President Michele Sutton saying they are 'struggling to keep up-to-date with current and future work trends'. And of course, relying on your parents to pick you out a career they think you might like has much deeper consequences than letting them choose your clothes for you: the latter might result to a few hours of embarrassment, but the former could lead to a lifetime of frustrated ambition.
Or worse, since parents encouraging their offspring to become doctors or lawyers - the sort of traditional jobs they understand - not just risks young people ending up on a course not suited to their talents, but has a wider potential impact on the economy as a whole, which is now facing a skills shortage in key industries. This is most pronounced in the technology sector, as demonstrated by an O2 report that estimated that Britain will need 750,000 workers with advanced digital skills by 2017. Yet currently only 7,500 students take computer science degrees a year, meaning that many of the 20,000 graduate vacancies in the software industry alone remain unfilled each year. This is compared to the twice that number of students who take medicine degrees, competition for places on which is now so high that Universities minister David Willetts has said students should consider studying STEM (Science, technology, engineering, maths) courses instead, both to avoid disappointment for themselves and to meet industry's demand for workers with qualifications in these subjects. The O2 report also finds parents at fault, with one in 10 saying they would 'actively discourage' their children from jobs in the digital sector, while 38% would advise them to go into law or medicine.
It'd be wrong to blame the parents of course for not being clued up on all the changes and opportunities in an industry that didn't even exist when they thinking about their own career options, so it's only natural they'll recommend 'safe' traditional careers. The finger should more accurately be pointed at a Government that has systematically wrecked careers guidance for young people by devolving responsibility for providing it to already over-worked schools without any increase to their budgets. This means too few students get to talk to a careers guidance professional with any real knowledge of the whole gamut of opportunities available, let alone have access to the work experience opportunities and encounters with employers they told the AOC researchers they want.
Yet whilst the technology sector might also be suffering due to this Government's short-sightedness, we at Brightside are using technology to tackle this problem head-on. Working with one of the industry's biggest players BT, the IT Ambassadors programme links young people studying IT courses with online volunteer mentors working for BT, giving them a source of advice about the real range of roles in the industry and the variety of routes they can take to get them. Just as importantly, online mentors also advise IT teachers, to make sure what they're teaching in the classroom reflects the realities of working in the industry, something many teachers understandably have little experience of themselves. Through this programme then young people are getting access to the four elements of good career guidance recommended by the AOC: relevant facts; exposure to opportunities; experience of the workplace; and clear direction, while by its very nature the online communication required helps students develop the digital skills employers are crying out for. Crucially, its also enabling employers to get directly involved in careers support, just as teachers, the AOC and the CBI - amongst a chorus of voices - are calling for. That's also the principle behind many of our other projects; such as the NHS Online Mentoring linking young people with mentors in the health service or Get In Get On run with the Financial and Legal Skills Partnership, which sees young people working through a series of 'virtual work experience' activities with the support of a volunteer mentor working in financial services.
This is no substitute for professional careers guidance, and we are still in crying need of a system which facilitates that crucial service for all - indeed, in an ideal world online mentoring would form a crucial part of a well-thought through properly resourced service which includes face to face guidance, and myriad other opportunities as part of a coherent careers curriculum. Nevertheless, we believe it's taking an important step towards addressing the concerns of the 51% of young people surveyed for the AOC report who said they didn't 'feel well-informed about what jobs are available'. And when it comes to careers guidance it's them - not parents, not teachers, not ministers - that we really need to listen to most.