How Schools Can Help Students Transition From School To The World Of Work

By Dr David Oxley and Dr Helmut Schuster


How do we direct students towards purpose-driven careers so that they flourish?


We read recently that 3 out of 4 managers reported they found working with Gen Z one of their greatest challenges. The primary accusations were of ‘them’ being unprepared for the corporate workplace. Specifically, that it was hard to get them to focus at work, that they had poor communication skills, were addicted to social media, and blurred the lines of business etiquette.

“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” Dismissing the next generation is far from a new thing according to Socrates. 50 years ago, Baby Boomers were labelled as self-centred hippies, who’s anti-establish, anarchic views, would destroy the world.

Who better than to know the truth of the unique strengths of the emerging generation than readers of this publication… their teachers. Viewed objectively, they are the most entrepreneurial gifted, well read, technologically savvy, open-minded, ethically principled, well-educated, and racially diverse yet to emerge.

But… (or should we say AND) ….

Their point of view, their context about work, and the role it plays in our lives is very different. Our lives have become faster, more hectic, more complicated over the past few decades. Where 50 years ago there seemed clear lines between work and life, today the lines have blurred. In the past, we embraced a separation between individual and corporate identities. Indeed, there was even a tacit understanding that some measure of servitude, suffering even, was to be endured in pursuit of an honest wage.

This is no longer the case. While society has raised its expectations for and consciousness about the role corporations play in our world, for Gen Z it’s much more extreme. We have spent the last few years looking at how these changed expectations manifest themselves in the workplace. To put this in very practical terms, we found that when Gen Z were able to apply their talents in the following environments… they excelled:

1 Purpose inspired work – Gen Zs greatest potential is unleashed when they feel a connection to a meaningful purpose that transcends traditional pay and benefits.

2 Authenticity – Honesty and being dealt with “eye to eye” was a foundational principle.

3 Flexible boundaries – Agile working, allowing them to augment core job responsibilities with ‘passion’ projects and achieve a desirable work/life mix (not balance).

4 Interesting diverse work – The presence rather than absence of ambiguity in job responsibilities.

5 Technology as a way of life – Embracing, particularly mobile, technology as an integrated part of life and work.

6 Shared boundaries for respect and ethicsA remarkable low tolerance for blurry ethical standards or behaviour.

So, it follows that all we must do is direct students into careers with these characteristics… problem solved! The reality is careers don’t just magically materialise at the right time or come with guarantees of a perfect match. There are an infinite number of jobs and an almost infinite number of ways to engage with them. Like many things in life, we can approach careers with unreasonable expectations, with a sense that the world should offer us something special… or we can engage with a healthier attitude, where we are more pragmatic and work to make the best of the opportunities that come our way.

We make this observation not because Gen Z have any more or less challenges in this regard. The transition from school to professional life is daunting and sits as one of the most challenging transitions we face as human beings. From dependence to independence. From having a plan laid out for us… to being faced with imponderables of choices and a sense that we are being judged… compared. It’s entirely understandable that the uninitiated stumble.

Consequently, what we recommend, is to begin the process of thinking about and building on-ramps for careers in the middle teenage years. The key, we believe, is exploring students’ existing interests and helping them experiment with different ways to access related careers. At the same time, it’s important to overcome the work-experience-deficiency-paradox well in advance of any full-time job applications.

To this end, we have designed four exercises which we share with you here:

Exercise 1. The MACRO – Cause and Contribution

We want to encourage engagement on consequential issues. The idea here is to ask students to scan newspapers, internet sources, local community, and their families, to identify problems that they feel most in need of attention. This might be global or local, collective, or individual. Then we ask them to suggest a contribution they can imagine making, however modest, to solving the problem.

  • Ask students to maintain a weekly journal.
  • They should make two columns headed Cause and Contribution.
  • Each week give them an opportunity to explain and get feedback on their journal entries.

This exercise can be undertaken over a month or much longer. The power is in an iterative process of discovery between students identifying issues and then debating with their classmates, a teacher, or even a business mentor, on how they might refine their ideas.

Desired Outcome: Creating a list of career destinations and points of entry.

Exercise 2. The MICRO – Trying things on for size.

We overlook the opportunities to do things now, in parallel with schoolwork. The people who find the transition from school to professional life the easiest are those that didn’t wait for a deadline or starter’s gun.

Set the challenge for (age appropriate) students to do one of the following during a 3–6-month period:

  • Volunteer for an NGO
  • Participate in a scholastic business plan competition.
  • Job shadow/ in a profession of interest
  • Solve a business problem for their family.

It is essential that this exercise is carefully supervised to ensure oversight through the selection, participation, and any post completion closure.

Desired Outcome: Two-fold (1) reinforce the power of AND, doing things in parallel, and (2) revealing and building resilience to the often more mundane realities of work.

Exercise 3. The PRACTICAL – How do you find and evaluate jobs.

The single biggest assumption that we would seek to challenge, is that the process of finding jobs is somehow intuitive and easy. It isn’t and it’s not. Consequently, the one crucial exercise we recommend for all students is to help them understand how to use the following sources to identify and then pursue potential job opportunities. The assignment can be to set aside a week to review and explore each possibility in a classroom setting or ask students to form teams to research each and provide a class presentation.

  • LinkedIn: Increasingly the most powerful online marketplace for jobs, self-promotion, and networking.
  • Professional networks: All major professions have organisations with programs designed to help kids start careers.
  • NGOs focused on youth development: We have worked with the AFS Youth Assembly but there are others. These organisations provide incredible opportunities for scholarships, networking, and work experience.
  • Apprenticeship programs: Increasingly there are major government supported programs focused on helping students launch careers.
  • Personal networking: Often the best career opportunities emerge from inspirations and connections we already have. Helping students identify them and overcome any hesitation in accessing them is important.

Desired outcome: Demystify the process of identifying job opportunities and accessing them.

We hope these exercises help your students prepare for fulfilling and successful careers. If we could leave you with one final message it would be this: we believe the biggest problem with navigating careers is a misguided sense that they happen sequentially, in a specific order, and following a pre-defined formula. This is where Gen Z’s intuitive sense of multi-tasking may be an advantage.

Optional 4th exercise

Exercise 4. The FUN – SCHOX GLOBAL SOLUTIONS (we suggest not to be shared – SCHOX = secret career hostage opportunity exercise)

We all love to play cryptic board games and simulations. Being successful in business very often boils down to two things… people and money.  This game is intended to flush out how difficult it is to manage the disparate narrow individual vested interests and succeed.

Team of 4-6 exercise:

1          – (E) Entrepreneur

2          – (ESM) Employee self-maximisers

2-4       – (ECG) Employee control group

The three groups should get a confidential briefing; the entrepreneur is told they have £45,000 (for 6 employees – adjust the number up of down by £7.5 for different group sizes) to invest but before they proceed, they must agree a mutually agreeable monthly contract with ALL the employees at a minimum of £5,000 a month. The second (ESM) group are told they are entering a job offer negotiation and heard friends have gotten around £7,500 a month. The third (ECG) group are told that they are in the final running for a job at an exciting technology start-up that may solve one of our world’s biggest problems.

The game should be run for minimum of three monthly cycles (this could be an icebreaker 60 min session including debrief). After each salary/budgeting round, the entrepreneur spins a dice and applies the number as a multiplier to whatever capital is left after paying employees. Any team that goes negative is declared bankrupt. There are no loans, no fuzzy maths – pure monthly cash accounting.

The entrepreneur is responsible for tracking the running total (P&L) and hands in their journal entries at the end.

The de-brief from the game is simply taking participants through the superficial results (which team made the most profit), to the creativity of the entrepreneurs in structuring employee pay (we specifically leave this open for people to be creative), to how employees felt about their pay. Ultimately, however, we are trying to draw out three main themes: profitable business requires business owners and employees to be cognisant of the economic realities, generally the best outcomes are achieved when things are transparent and people compromise, and in particular, that squabbles between small groups completely derail the entire company.