Monday 14 October 2019

Degree or apprenticeship? How to help your teenager choose their best option

Childhood has changed since your day. Embrace this instead of fearing it. You need to teach your child how to behave online. You have to teach them that what goes online is there forever. Teach them the value of making things and solving problems. Foster their ability to find the magic between man and machine

Stock image
Stock image
(Adam Peck/PA)

Harry de Quetteville

Has your child chosen which subjects to study? Booked their place at university? Are you, in the back of your mind, thinking about what kind of work would suit them, remembering how you, after a certain undergraduate haze, grabbed a degree and emerged to pursue a career which closely resembles - 20 or 30 years on - the job you are doing today?

We parents are marvellous social replicators. That's the overwhelming conclusion of long-term child-development studies. Middle-class parents, by-and-large, have successful middle-class children. But there's a problem with that: some replication is now bad. When it comes to higher education and the world of work, for example, yesterday's models are no longer fit for purpose. The linear progression from the Leaving Certificate to universities to careers is being torn up.

There are now myriad ways into top jobs, some of which don't involve going to university at all. Meanwhile, education is becoming a life-long process. The highest-flying students today have the choice between a university degree leaving them with debt, or a Google apprenticeship leaving them with money in the bank and a three-year career head start. Many have no difficulty opting for the latter.

It is we parents in our 40s and 50s who struggle to convince ourselves. For we are part of a generation encouraged, at all costs, to go to university. The difference is that a generation ago, children who didn't stay in school after 16 were unlikely to go back to education later in life. And that was a barrier to high-profile, high-prestige, high-earning jobs.

No longer. For our children, work might begin at 18, pause at 25 while they do a Master's, resume at 29. And their working lives are likely to be composites of a dozen or more different jobs.

Increasingly, those jobs will find them. With each day that passes, technology allows companies to outsource more work to freelancers. Company computer systems are housed not on physical hard drives in offices, but remotely, on "the cloud" - allowing them to be accessed from anywhere by people who might be employees for years, or just a day. There is every reason to believe that the gig economy, which we currently associate with Deliveroo cyclists, will extend ever more widely. Competition for that economy's work, then, will become infinitely broader.

And when companies choose their freelancers, data will lead them to the people with the highest competencies for a task, rather than the people who went to a certain school. Sexual and racial discrimination should become less prevalent - but there will be downsides. For example, that picture on Facebook of your son, mindlessly drunk after his graduation party, wearing only stockings and a suspender belt, will not bolster his case for competence.

You may have heard terrifying stories about life in China, where "social credit" scores can dictate individuals' ability to catch a flight, book a hotel room, or get a loan. Forget to pay a bill on time, down goes your score. Keep a healthy savings-account balance, watch it go up.

This may sound like a dystopia. In China, there are certainly nightmarish elements to the system: making disobliging comments about the Communist party online is no way to improve your rating. But if the thought-control aspects of "social credit" will hopefully not transfer to these shores, reputational impact certainly will.

If your children's online reputation drops too low in future, they may find it hard to get work in a world where smart analytics tools will allow employers to scrutinise online information about them that is increasingly searchable. Experts today talk about creating a strong personal digital brand and then, above all, its "hygiene".

"Think very carefully now about your child's digital future and footprint," says Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at LSE. "I might even say think very hard about taking pictures of your kids and putting them online. Because once you have had them facially recognised, that's it. You can't undo it."

This is a particularly crucial issue for parents today, she says, because legislation to protect consumer rights online is highly likely within the next 10 years. "Before that kicks in, we are living in a curious moment of unregulated madness in which the innovation is running far ahead of the tech."

She likens a dodgy digital footprint today to a tattoo: permanent, and something most parents would rather their children did not have. "Get your child to 18 without a problematic digital record, then it's down to them.

"I used to say that about tattoos. I would get my children to 18 without a tattoo. Because a digital marker is like a tattoo - something you can do instantly, that is with you forever. We've never lived in a world where there's been such a record."

Screens for schools

Of course, nothing is straightforward. At the same moment experts like Prof Livingstone caution young people about using digital tools in their social lives, others are encouraging them to immerse themselves in digital possibilities in their academic lives.

At the moment, provision - in the UK as well as Ireland - is patchy and often poor. "Schools take 20 minutes to log on to computers, and ban phones," says Mark Smith, CEO of Ada, the National College of Digital Skills in the UK. "How does that create an environment where children learn to work with computers?"

A report by the European Commission earlier this year found that Ireland has one of the lowest levels of basic digital skills in the EU. Just 48pc of individuals have at least basic digital skills, the report found.

For parents of those teens at school now, the solution is clear. Make home the place you learn with tech. "You can't do history game-based learning in the classroom, but I encourage it at home," says Tom Rogers, Head of History at an international school in Vigo, Spain. "Tech is perfectly suited for home learning and homework."

It will also allow determined parents to find apps and online platforms where learning can be tailored to particular ways their children acquire knowledge. Such personalisation will mean parents hearing less from frustrated teens moaning: "I just can't do it!"

The partnership between kids and tech is essential, because by the time today's schoolchildren start their first jobs, work will be a place where man and machine work side-by-side. "The sweet spot is marrying the sciences and the arts - those are the people who will get snapped up," says Smith. "Those doing graphics, for example, using computers to advance design. Harness your imagination, then use tech to express it - that's the best formula."

He freely admits that the pace of technological change makes it hard to know what specific courses to teach. Instead, he suggests, parents should think about fostering a mindset strong in "computational thinking". This does not mean thinking "like a computer", but rather thinking about a problem in ways that allow computers to help solve it.

Typically, this means breaking problems down into components and thinking creatively, logically and often collaboratively about how to tackle each one. "What employers will want is creative problem solvers," Smith says. "What will set people apart is their ability to work alongside tech."

Take Timothy Armoo (23), who has just graduated from university with a degree in computer science. While there, he set up and ran an advertising company, Fanbytes, from his bedroom. It uses social-media "influencers" to ensure promotional videos are seen online by advertisers' target audiences.

Curiously, despite his degree, it was his founding partner who wrote the algorithm that identifies the best influencers. He, by contrast, brought an intuitive understanding of social-media audiences, developed when he started a company in his teens and promoted it on Facebook.

"There are so many things that as a young person you don't think are business skills," he says, "But they are. Like building big Facebook pages. I was good at partnering with people who had big Facebook pages; I learned how to drive traffic. By 21, I had a deep understanding about how young people behave and how they can be marketed to."

Building his business at a young age, then, required what he calls "a fusion of nerdy understanding of algorithms and an intuitive social understanding of people." He brought the social understanding.

The future, he believes, "belongs to the makers" - like him. If parents really want to push their offspring into that entrepreneurial elite of tomorrow, he says, they should encourage their children to pick up skills that will allow them to "solve problems and make stuff. That's where the value is tomorrow".

It's a mindset which, at its most fundamental, helps explain the current growth in crafts and crafting businesses, essentially a mix of entrepreneurialism and uniquely human dexterity.

Just as parents once had to decide whether to push their children towards top universities, they will in future have to decide whether to push them towards an entrepreneurial future. Whether they should become a "maker". According to AI-expert Mark Minevich, this is the key decision that influences what and how to study.

"If you are going to be a user, a consumer of stuff, then it's a good idea to be a generalist, to have a broad range to appreciate and interpret. But if you are going to be a creator, if you are going to build stuff, specialise. Be as expert as you can."

The masters and the apprentice

All of which requires parents to take a step back, and ask themselves what future will suit their child best. That hasn't changed. What has, is the number of different routes to that future. "When I grew up, a traditional education was seen as the safe and the right thing to do," says Julie Mercer, global education lead partner at Deloitte. "But it's very important that now we are parents, we are willing to accept new routes into employment."

At Ada college, 40pc of the last crop of graduates chose to head to an apprenticeship rather than a university. Two, from a year of 109 students, bypassed both, taking jobs paying more than €30k a year. Not bad when you are 18.

"It makes perfect sense to me that they get an initial degree through an apprenticeship, then perhaps do a Master's in their late 20s," says Smith. "That's the best time for campus-based learning. In your early 20s it's largely about meeting people and having fun, and there are better ways of doing that than spending thousands."

The consequences for universities are likely to be profound, and even futurologist Ian Pearson struggles to see how the current higher-education model can be sustained in the future.

"It's hard to see what will happen to universities," he says. "Deep knowledge learning will only be appropriate for a small number of people."

The lesson for parents is clear: an education that is traditional and safe today may be risky and niche tomorrow.

Six tips for futureproofing your teenager's education 

1 DIGITAL FOOTPRINT  Chinese-style "social credit scores" are coming, in one form or another. They could influence your child's ability to book a hotel room or secure a mortgage. So think carefully now about your child's digital footprint. Once it's out there, it's out there forever.

2 ACCEPT THE NEW IN EDUCATION Even if you went to a top university, your child's best route to happiness and a good job may lie in an apprenticeship. Be flexible about routes from education into work.

3 FIND THE TAILORED WAY From medicine to education, personalisation will be the keyword of the future. Don't say, "She hates maths", say "She hates learning maths like this". Increasingly, apps and online platforms will offer tailored solutions.

4 QUALITY NOT QUANTITY Exams have got harder. That rigour is useful, but many schools insist children do too many. Consider insisting your school does fewer, and spend the extra time on building social capital - say, by getting children to read about current events, debate them among themselves and with invited guests. It's exams plus social capital that will secure those jobs requiring the highest cognitive skills.

5 DEMAND DIGITAL Ask your school how they are developing your child's digital skills. The future will be about working with computers.

6 HIT THE SWEET SPOT Futureproofed careers will marry human creativity and computing power, like graphic designers and architects. Harness your imagination, then use tech to express it.

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