Director of Careers Service: “Making the most of your time”

Image credit: Will Tilbrook

Gordon Chesterman has worked at the Careers Service for nearly 20 years now, 12 of those years working as the Director, and sitting down with him to talk about what the careers service has to offer and the challenges that students face, I get the sense that Chesterman has seen a lot of change over that time. He talks about his background in recruitment and reflectively jokes: “Those were in the days before the Internet”.

This is something we talk a lot about: how the world being connected online has changed the game for employers and employees. “It was very easy as you used to get a few thousand applications for 500 jobs, but now with the Internet, employers get 40, 50, 60 applications for everything. So in a way things are now harder for the student and the employer.”

This paints a somewhat gloomy picture, but the Cambridge Careers Service has significant success when it comes to providing graduates with prospects. It was ranked best in the UK and fourth best in the world by Times Higher Education last November, and he tells me that by the end of first year, up to 60% of undergraduates on some courses have had some contact with the service, and by the end of third year this rises to 90%. I am impressed and ask why he thinks so many first years, particularly, are flocking to the service: “It’s driven partly by employers, requiring more relevant experience, placements, on CVs, and students are conscious of that, but importantly, making the most of your time at Cambridge for the three or four years they’re here. To get a good degree, but also to get some of the other attributes that an employer would be looking for later on. […] It’s important to do extra-curricular activities whilst here at Cambridge to fill in some of those gaps.”

I ask Chesterman whether he thinks being barred from paid employment during term time puts Cambridge students at a disadvantage compared with applicants who have gone to other universities where you can work, and he acknowledges it is a concern for some students. “It might be a minor disadvantage if you’re hoping to pursue a career in the sector one would have worked in during term time. But I keep harping back to the fact that it is best to get a good degree than to have had ten hours a week work experience in a non-graduate level job. And we do have very long vacations compared with other universities.” 

The talk of difficulties faced by students turns to Brexit: “Interestingly, I think Brexit will present this University with all the challenges that are well-known, but also I think opportunities for our students as well. There has been a lot of comment recently that those with language skills are being sought after by employers and government as well, and that can be not necessarily through studying foreign languages here.” I conclude that employers must be looking for well-rounded candidates who are able to weather these challenges, and he agrees. “When I was at PwC UK, we used to get really worried about someone heading for a first, in that, often in that particular industry, the skills that we were looking for would have been acquired outside the lab or the library”.

He highlights that “65% of employers who come to [the Careers Service] don’t care a damn what degree discipline you study here at Cambridge” and this seems to suggest a flexibility on the part of the employers. However, I suggest that this flexibility may make it difficult for students to find these occupations which don’t fit into any given career path. I ask what the service can do to direct students to these careers. “If you sat down in the chair and said: ‘I’m very interested in trends, I’m highly numerate, I have fairly strong IT skills, I like looking at forecasting, planning, interpreting data’, and I said ‘well have you thought about data analytics?’ And you said ‘no, what’s that?’, then we could talk at more length about that, get you in touch with some alumni who were working in that field who you could talk to, I would have told you about the event, shown you vacancies in that area, and then you can begin to lift the cover off that career sector”.

Following each person who comes to the Careers Service through the process of finding a job, from start to finish, seems to be its hallmark, though Chesterman is keen to warn finalists not to rush to the service in their final months: “If you’re still floundering, confused, worried by the end of March, please focus on that final exam. The Careers Service is here to help you once you’ve graduated.” Indeed, this appears to be true – “You’re entitled to use this for life. We had a 67-year-old come in the other day! So with careers changers, we can help you too.”

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