Supporting sustainable careers and preparedness for job automation

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In this extra post, Stephen Sowa shares insights from the Sustainable Careers Projects he spearheaded which aimed at supporting students in developing sustainable career paths whilst navigating the increase of job automation. Stephen is a Tutor and 4th year PhD student in Moray House School of Education and Sport.

Cast your mind back to when you were a student. Were you excited to prepare for a career in which you could positively contribute to the world? Like many students studying at The University of Edinburgh today, it is quite probable this was the case for you too. Yet, it is not always clear for students how they can contribute to society and sustainable development (e.g., the 17 SDGs↗️) through their future careers. Aspiring to work in a socially impactful industry or company may come into conflict with an individual’s personal career priorities. In our role as teachers or professional service staff, how can we support students to reconcile such tensions and meaningfully contribute to sustainable development in their future workplaces and careers?

To explore this question my colleagues and I carried out the Sustainable Careers Project. The project, funded by a PTAS grant, brought together academic staff from Moray House School of Education with practitioners in the Careers Service. One of the project aims has been to develop a sustainable career learning intervention which will be integrated within various provisions offered to students by the Careers Service. Because a career may often be thought of as something one merely does in the world, we see it as important to help students understand how careers can also shape and be shaped by the world. This we refer to as developing an ecological mode of career thinking. Of the prominent factors that are presently shaping careers and workplaces, this project additionally concerned itself with helping students understand how new technologies (e.g., AI and robotics) may increasing reshape job opportunities and occupational requirements.

The project was split into three phases. A needs assessment phase, an ideation and intervention development phase, and a testing/review phase. A design-based participatory approach was used to iteratively develop the intervention using contributions from career practitioners and students. In the needs assessment phase, we carried out three focus groups with a total of 13 students. These focus groups were conducted to uncover the ways in which students currently think about their careers in relation to sustainable development and job automation. Findings revealed that whilst many participants expressed a desire to attain a career in which they could positively contribute to the environment or sustainable development more broadly, some identified personal career priorities (e.g., being near friends/family) which could limit them in making a positive social impact. For example, one participant studying politics acknowledged that while they remain interested in working for an organisation that embraces sustainability values and practices which are more common to a small NGO, there are likely to be more and better paying opportunities available at larger organisations which may not uphold these values.

Focus group participants also expressed varying levels of knowledge on the impact of technology on jobs. Some participants were aware of the possibility of artificial intelligence (AI) and other digital technologies impacting jobs, but they acknowledged they were not well educated on the different ramifications. Several participants were nonetheless able to articulate possible consequences of technology on future occupations and job markets. A medical student explained how certain occupations such as a radiologist could be replaced by machines and that this technological awareness had some influence on her career decision making. In general, the focus group findings illustrated that students were often capable of perceiving different connections between their careers, technology, and sustainable development. But there was scope to extend students’ thinking beyond certain binary distinctions, such as non-green industries/occupations being strictly “bad” or technology having a one-dimensional effect on jobs.

Building on the insights from these focus groups, we entered the ideation and intervention development phase of the project. After brainstorming a range of approaches and activity ideas for the intervention, we selected three activities to trial at a workshop with 16 students. One of the activities was a dilemma-based exercise↗️. Small groups were provided with a story extract↗️ of a recent graduate trying to manage their personal career priorities in conjunction with their goals of contributing to sustainable development. Students were supported to identify and discuss the tensions within the dilemma, propose possible resolutions, and consider the ramifications for their own career plans. Another activity invited students to research corporate sustainability practices↗️. By critically examining company policies and sustainability statements, including possible issues of greenwashing, students were encouraged to explore the opportunities and complexities of achieving sustainable development goals in different companies. Finally, an activity was developed in which students could critically review a selection of media stories↗️ to analyse how job automation is portrayed in the media, and to explore the nuanced and differential impacts of technology across industries and within occupations.

Initial findings from the workshop suggest students found the activities to be stimulating for their career thinking and beneficial for their awareness of sustainability opportunities in different industries. Throughout this project we have found a strong desire among students to consider the wider implications of their careers, to move beyond binary thinking about careers, and to find strategies to balance or resolve competing career goals and priorities. Fostering this exploratory mindset can be achieved by creating a learning environment in which students can fluidly interact with their peers, reflect on powerful stories about the career journeys of others, and to imagine themselves in different career scenarios. By engaging in this process students can discover the drive and insight to forge a better future for themselves and the wider world.


Sustainable career learning activities:↗️↗️↗️

Career-sustainability dilemma stories↗️↗️↗️

photo of the authorStephen Sowa

Stephen is a Tutor and 4th year PhD student in Moray House School of Education and Sport. As the Principial Investigator on the PTAS funded Sustainable Careers Project, he has worked closely with staff at the UoE Careers Service over the summer to develop the sustainable career learning intervention. Together with his co-investigators Dr. Sharon Maguire and Dr. Ramsey Affifi, Stephen has been committed to helping students learn how their future careers can contribute to sustainable development and how they can prepare for job automation.

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