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Weekend Reading: Creating sustainable careers for the next generation – what can universities do?

  • 29 June 2024
  • By Fiona Christie, Emma Pollard and Gill Frigerio
  • This weekend piece was kindly authored by Fiona Christie (X: @FCChristie), Senior Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University; Emma Pollard at the Institute for Employment Studies; and Gill Frigerio (X: @GillFrigerio), Associate Professor at the University of Warwick.
  • The National Institute for Career Education and Counselling (NICEC) is hosting a conference this Tuesday 2nd and Wednesday 3rd July; you can sign up here.

What does sustainability really mean for the planet, for society, for universities and their students?

The word sustainability is used widely in higher education but like many other concepts commonplace in the sector (e.g., employability, quality, student voice), its meaning is a slippery one. It means different things to different people.

Most commonly it is associated with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. These have influenced universities to set environmental targets about how they manage their estates. In addition, the Education for Sustainable Development movement has spawned numerous curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular initiatives.

Meanwhile it is a troubling time for individual HE students with increasing numbers reporting poor mental health.  In addition, research illustrates that nearly one-half of students report facing financial difficulties during their course, and more students have to work alongside their studies and work longer hours than in previous years. Three in five students report being confident about securing a graduate role after university and feel prepared to enter the world of work, but this leaves two in five with concerns. Fears about a lack of relevant experience and a lack of networks and contacts are the greatest concerns.  Research also suggests that students are worried about the cost of living and one in four are considering starting their careers in different sectors in search of better salaries and more job security. However, diversity and inclusion, support for mental wellbeing and company culture remain important considerations for students when looking for potential employers (the latter more so than salary). Students are rightly mindful of how working environments will sustain them in their graduate careers.

For careers professionals and employability educators working with students facing such concerns, sustainability is a useful concept when thinking about careers that are sustainable on an individual basis. This can be at a personal level. i.e., being healthy, happy, and productive or having the right skills to sustain a career. The emphasis has shifted over recent years from supporting graduates with initial choices to helping them develop the long-term career competencies that will enable them to sustain their careers over a long working life, and this has been theorised by career scholars such as Ans de Vos. The concept of sustainability for employability in higher education is not a new concern, but there is a renewed interest. When developing a policy framework for employability back in 1998, sustainability (unless employment is sustained, employability counts for little) and quality of work were considered key and interrelated aspects of employability.

Students are also interested in how their careers connect to a sustainable society, e.g., doing work that is good for the environment. University careers professionals are grappling with new ideas about green guidance but also increasing pressure from students to have policies that are good for the planet. There have been examples of student activists successfully influencing university policies, for example, regarding representation of the fossil fuels sector at careers fairs.

Careers professionals and employability educators have started to integrate aspects of sustainability and the UN SDGs in their practice. In Canada, Candy Ho has developed an approach to career learning pedagogy which has sustainability at its heart. She challenges her students to not just consider what they want from their careers, but also how they can contribute to the world and which of the UN SDGs most aligns with their personal values and even life purpose! Meanwhile Fiona Christie and her colleagues at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Decent Work and Productivity Research Centre are working to develop career learning resources for students with an explicit focus on Good Work and Employment Rights.

If you’re interested in finding out more, the forthcoming NICEC conference this July puts sustainability centre stage exploring the diverse ways sustainability can be considered. At the event, careers professionals and scholars will focus on how to create thriving healthy, diverse, and resilient communities now and in the future, looking at this topic through three important lenses: skills, wellbeing, and the environment. Plenary speakers include Ans de Vos, Candy Ho, Miriam Dimsits, Cathy Brown, Deidre Bowen, Sally Wilson, David Blackmore, Nat Ward-Smith, Gill Frigerio, Tristram Hooley, Chris Warhurst, Clare Boden-Hatton, and Rosemary McLean. In addition, fifteen workshops cover diverse topics addressing research, policy and practice.  For those unable to attend the face-to-face event in Birmingham, UK, participation via the RingCentral online platform will also provide access to recorded content afterwards.

Through the event, NICEC (a UK based learned society committed to serious thinking at the interface of career development policy, practice, and scholarship) hopes to stimulate an unpicking of these interrelated definitions of sustainability in ways that moves the debate forward for the good of graduates, the economy and the planet.

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