Careers services need to make sure that Black Careers Matter

This article was first published on Luminate in October 2021. In it I talk about a report that I worked on for the Institute of Student Employers and argue that we need to take action to support the careers of students from Black heritage backgrounds.

Most careers services would say that they are doing their best to support racial justice. The recent issue of AGCAS Phoenix devoted to race equality showed the wide range of practice that was out there.

But, our new report Black Careers Matter suggests that there is still a lot to do and provides some concrete ideas about how careers services can take things forwards.

Challenges for students from Black heritage backgrounds

The overwhelming majority of ISE members (90%), including both employers and careers professionals, agreed that students from Black heritage backgrounds face particular challenges in the labour market.

Statistics produced by the government back this up, highlighting the fact that Black workers earn £1 an hour less than white workers and that only 5% of Black workers are in management and senior roles in comparison with 11% of white workers.

These inequalities are not confined to the workplace and can also be found in the education system where Black students are less likely to attend a high tariff university and less likely to get a 2:1 or First once they are there.

Listening to voices from Black heritage backgrounds

We talked to current students and recent graduates from Black heritage backgrounds to get their perspective. They felt that when you are Black you need to work harder to be successful and talked about how challenging it is to work in all-white environments. They complained that people from Black heritage backgrounds were often absent from recruitment processes and argued that organisations needed to commit to more diversity at all levels.

They also had a lot to say about whether the education system had successfully prepared them for the transition to the workplace. They wanted to see more career education in schools, colleges and universities and for this support to continue after graduation.

We need to see changes in the education system. Careers needs to be embedded into our courses.

They also wanted to see race and racism discussed more openly as part of career and employability education. One participant argued that it was important that the education system was not a ‘white space’ and another that career education should actively try and involve Black speakers and role models.

They also highlighted that career education should include discussion of and ideas about how to challenge racism. They hoped that the education system could become an active force for positive change.

We need more real-life learning in the education system. For example, we should learn about how complaints processes work.

We need a focus on justice and how to navigate complex processes.

Universities should take more of an advocacy role.

Participants argued that careers services needed to actively engage with issue of race and racism to prepare students for what they would experience in the workforce. This approach to building practical resilience to racism also needs to be balanced with education that challenges racism and builds wider understanding of other cultures.

White people should have to understand more about other cultures. We should enjoy other cultures. But PC culture makes it difficult to say things. We need to talk about it more. Universities and workplaces play it too safe.

In general participants believed that the career services had an important role in preparing all young people for the workplace. As race is an important way in which people’s experience of work is structured, it is important for educators and careers professionals to talk about this with both Black and white students.

What careers services can do

Careers services should be involved in actively challenging racism and bias. Britain is a multi-ethnic, multicultural country and the students who are graduating from universities will spend their working lives surrounded by people with different backgrounds.

Careers services should ensure that everyone learns about a range of cultures. This includes learning about racism and inequality in the workplace and how to challenge it. This should not only be addressed in programmes aimed at Black heritage students, but should rather inform all career education building students competency to work and live in multicultural Britain.

This means that issues of race, racism, bias and inequality need to be openly talked about within careers and employability education. Black students need space to discuss the issues that they are concerned about and help in confront the challenges that they might experience. But, employability programmes also need to engage white students in thinking about race and racism and considering how they can play a positive role.

We know that effective career and employability provision actively involves employers. Universities should attend to the ethnic diversity of the role models that they bring into the institution and make sure that students from Black heritage backgrounds get access to employers and to internships and placement opportunities.

Employers are universities’ allies in supporting graduates’ careers, but careers services should be prepared to advocate for students and challenge employers on issues of race. They should also be open to feedback from employers and students on their own diversity and respond to this feedback positively.

Finally, it is important for careers services to attend to their own diversity and representation. Careers services need to be more diverse and to make an active commitment to tackling racial injustice.

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