Back to school

Last week I had the pleasure of going back to school, specifically my old Law School at the University of Sheffield. In my capacity as alumna now working in a non-law job with a public/third sector feel to it, I was asked to attend the opening session of a Law Boot Camp to give an insight into the kind of work I do and to hopefully encourage others to follow in my footsteps.

I was really excited to go back to uni (even though I still live 2 miles from the main campus!) and even more excited to promote housing as a career choice to students. When I was a student, no one at uni had ever brought housing as a career option to my attention; my knowledge of the sector came from a brief stint by my mum as a sheltered housing scheme manager in Leeds. I also worked in customer services at the student halls of residence for a couple of years and didn’t want these housing skills to go to waste. Finally, my criminology studies highlighted to me the importance of quality, stable housing to a cohesive and successful society. These things added together, plus much Googling, resulted in my discovery of the Futures Housing Group Graduate Management Scheme and attending a ‘Careers with a Conscience Fair’ to meet them.

This is the story I told the 20 or so law students sat in front of me last Monday, who up until then will have had the same experience I did of big law firms pushing their recruitment material at every given opportunity to the extent that you’d never believe there were other options out there for law graduates. So I told them of the sorts of opportunities they could find in the housing world, although I cautioned that if they are looking for a career with a social purpose, they are going to have to do the leg work to find them and probably be willing to take an entry level job and work their way up as graduate schemes can be harder to come by and are unlikely to involve large cohorts with strict training programmes like big companies offer (not that I think this is a bad thing). I did point them in the direct of things like the GEM programme, RISE and Charity Works as a starting point for their search.

There was a Q&A session after the 4 of us on the panel had presented, the key question that we discussed in this session was demonstrating commercial awareness. Now I remember this term being thrown around at uni and everyone knowing that it was important to securing a job but it was quite an elusive term that none of us could quite put our finger on and it seems that is still the case today. Thankfully, the panel not only had a good understanding of the term, we all agreed on what companies mean by it. Our advice to the students was that being commercially aware means demonstrating you understand how what you have learnt in theory can be and is applied in practice. It means understanding how businesses work, particularly that they have a bottom line and giving examples of how you would work in a way that supports this.

We highlighted the importance of networks, because unfortunately it very often comes down to who you know not what you know. And also to make sure you stand out from the crowd; the graduate job market is very competitive and can be very homogenous. Simple things like providing handouts during your interview presentation or mocking up a project idea specific to your chosen company to show you have researched the industry and understand how the company works will go a long way.

I also recommended students really reflect on their values and experiences in all aspects of their life that they can draw on during the interview process; many companies now recruit for attitude rather than skill and even small examples of how you tackled a problem in your personal life, group study work, sports team, part time job, hobby, volunteering, etc can demonstrate the non-technical skills people are looking for in their staff.

I hope that my place on the panel will have helped those students to see the other options available to them, including housing. On a personal level, I found it quite interesting to get an insight into what students think and feel re moving into the world of work and sadly it made me feel that so many students are still very unprepared because they have spent so long studying the theory of things and not how it practically applies in a business. Earlier this year I spent some time with DMU students as part of the Policy Commission project and I was left with the same feeling of frustration as students could regurgitate pieces of legislation and details of policy initiatives and their theoretical pros and cons but my talk of what the impact of these things on the ground looked like was an alien concept to them. So it seems there is still a way to go to ensure all students are commercially aware and perhaps businesses need to get more involved with unis to drive this forward, after all it’s businesses that will suffer if this problem is left unattended.

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