On returning to my old secondary school for a careers event several years ago, I was asked to describe a typical day before inviting the children to guess what I did.

Here’s the jobs they came up with: secretary; nurse; veterinary assistant; shop assistant; primary school teacher. At the time, I was a Partner Account Manager at Microsoft so you’d forgive them for not guessing a job that only those in tech would know, however their responses highlighted to me how big the disconnect is between the jobs students imagine are available vs jobs that actually exist.

Given that I grew up on a council estate with a lot of pupils on free school meals (myself included) it made sense for the pupils to think I did one of the jobs they listed. My mum had been a cleaner and a childminder. Lots of my friends’ mums worked in shops, care homes and nurseries. It was rare among my peers to have two parents with ‘white collar’ jobs. Entering the world of office work and technology was an absolute revelation as I discovered the potential I had to transform my life – discussing my salary and benefits package with the pupils generated a sudden wave of interest in technology careers – so it’s with this lens that I’d like to offer five different ways to approach careers talks.

1.    Industry first

Whether it’s legal, finance, technology or professional services, all industries have job titles that mean nothing outside of their context and all industries suffer from being viewed from just one angle. Pupils think you “have to be techy” to work in tech or that the only career in legal that of a lawyer. A five minute overview of your sector provides pupils with all-important perspective and allows you to surface any misconceptions.

2.    The foot in the door

If you’re delivering a careers talk, it’s likely that you’re fairly well established. And while your achievements may serve as an inspiration, it’s hard for pupils to draw a line between where they are now and where you are today. Starting right at the beginning helps to illustrate that careers paths are not all pre-planned and linear.

3.    Business in the round

It was only on joining an organisation that I began to understand how businesses are structured. In a graduate environment you might get sent on secondment around the organisation to learn how it works so why not provide a little of that? Illustrating your organisational structure offers a great way to explain roles, relationships, dependencies and outline potential career paths.

4.    The game of life

The things that underpin the career we might want to pursue include money, fulfilment, achievement, service to others and recognition. For many of us that first point is the initial motivator – I couldn’t afford not to work after leaving college and so missed the chance of going to university. It was only after spending 10 years at a corporate and achieving a level of financial security that I had the luxury to pursue work that I ‘love’. Sharing the drivers behind your decisions could offer greater opportunities for connection than focusing purely on the job.

5.    Warts and all

Alongside enjoying some tremendous career highs, I’ve made some phenomenal mistakes and I think it’s important for us to talk about these. We need to reassure students these slip-ups are par for the course and illustrate what we’ve learned as a result. For those of us in the second phase of our careers it’s healthy to remember that we too were the 20-year-old who forgot their passport on a work trip (just me?) or the first-time manager who learned about stakeholder management the hard way.

Leading the way

If you’ve not delivered a careers talk, I would encourage you to approach your local secondary school to do so – especially if you live in an area that has been identified as a ‘cold-spot’ for pupils not in education, employment or training. For women in particular, it’s important to be visible in the context of our work, to demonstrate what’s possible and share our career stories – I believe doing so is an important form of leadership for the next generation.

About the author

Toni KentToni Kent is an experienced writer and performer who is trusted by large corporate IT organisations to represent their business leaders and brands through a mixture of ghost writing, coaching and motivational speaking.

With twenty years of experience in technology and as an advocate for women supporting women, Toni is frequently booked by Women in Business networks and organisations that want to promote gender parity. With lived experience of how work transforms the life prospects of women from disadvantaged backgrounds, she is proud to be the official event compere for Smart Works Reading – an organisation that helps women return to the workplace via free interview coaching and work-appropriate clothing.

Toni is also a columnist for Berkshire Life and has written three books of humorous reflections on what it means to be a woman: Reasons to be Cheerful Parts One and Two and I Need a Wife. Her books are all available via Amazon.

You can follow Toni on Twitter and LinkedIn at @tonijkent

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