Mid-life career changes, qualifications and the gaps between them

All change

Very proud to have achieved my Masters in Online and Distance Education and eternally thankful to the Open University for accepting me despite the lack of prior qualifications normally required for entry onto an MA. Oddly though, instead of the eagerly anticipated elation finally getting it seems to have brought on a sharp snap at our traditional education systems and the over-emphasis in society on the role of qualifications.

Four years ago, as the age of 50 approached, a long term and successful career in education got dumped to begin a completely new profession in marine marketing and media, at the same time as starting the MA. It was a hard decision and for many who knew the ‘educator me’ it seemed an odd and somewhat inexplicable one, though in fact it’s the third significant career change.

Despite the bumpiness of the ride (family care needs and other life events are reflected in the grade variations for each of the MA modules!) it remains one of the best ever decisions. Like all leaps into the unknown it was scary at first, and even still now sometimes. Not just the fear of losing all I was walking away from, including professional identity and networks, but worse was the fear of being inadequate to the tasks and challenges ahead. But change was calling so once again I followed the walk of life…

Valuing traits and capabilities over the ‘right’ qualification or experience

When going through the application process for the new job, the bosses overlooked lack of previous experience or qualifications. Instead they placed their value on ability to learn and transfer existing skills, team participation and ability to work autonomously, passion for the business, flexibility, determination…I respect them immensely for the confidence they placed in those skills and traits, and in return they have a dedicated team member who loves her job and the all the many opportunities, new experiences and skills it’s provided. Especially during these difficult COVID times with people losing their jobs, it’s important for both job hunters and employers to remember that it isn’t always the right qualification or perfect background experience that makes for a good employee.

Interestingly, The Open University also took this stance when scrutinising my application. With no previous certificates or degrees to demonstrate my ability to study at this (or any) recognised and certificated level they required an example of my work. Thankfully it obviously passed muster.

Don’t mind the gap

Although it was all quite daunting I kind of knew I’d love the job before I started. What wasn’t anticipated was that doing the MA alongside it would give me ideas for a whole new model for post-compulsory education that I’m now excited to explore further. This story in itself demonstrates the gaps in our system: although celebrating the achievement of my Masters qualification, it also celebrates the overriding importance of those almost undefinable and unmeasurable skills sets that can make a highly specialised qualification pale into insignificance. The skills and traits that are acquired through life and haven’t been captured through recognised qualifications, including by those who have rejected formal education for whatever reasons. These are the ‘gaps’ I want to look at and for society, employers, to see them as core value that sits between the qualifications or even in place of. The gaps that our system doesn’t allow for. They are the whole of life that lies between and beyond certificates and I intend to explore how these capabilities can be captured in a way that is accepted, recognised, securely validated and valued, on at least an equal footing to institutionalised qualifications.

More gap than qual

I am one of those people with more gap than qual, though in my case by choice not accident and I’ve been fortunate in always having had gainful employment despite this. Almost certainly though that’s what fuels my passion for the gaps! I’d left school at 16 with just two O’levels and would have left at 15 if it was legally allowed. Stubbornly informing distressed parents, teachers, career advisors and even peers that I’d do exactly as I pleased in life without their qualifications, then setting out to prove it. First travelling the world as chef on luxury sailing boats, then on undersea archaeological dive explorations, helping with logistics and organising of an offshore international sailing regatta that was the first of its kind and having loads of fun and learning on the way. Then I accidentally fell into teaching, long story later eventually going on to become director of teacher training and setting up and running my own virtual learning environment. In 2014 I found myself representing the Third Sector on the steering committee setting the National Teaching Standards in England in post compulsory education. It was after that I started thinking about maybe going to uni and doing a Masters but I guess that would have been too easy, so I changed career again at the same time just to prove my point from all those years ago one final time?

An important part of the new job is video making – filming and editing, of which my previous experience was, ummm, limited….I sweated and slaved over the first one and proudly posted to You Tube. Very quickly a subscriber commented that whoever had made the video should be sacked! I was mortified. We make and sell very high end products, like in the more money bracket than most of us can imagine, so I immediately sent this comment to the bosses. Silence. I waited but no answer, so I went to see them to suggest a course of evening classes in film making. This raised an unexpected and veherment response “Don’t do that. You’ll only end up making someone else’s ides of what it should be. You’ll learn”. I was floored and the next many videos were pretty stressful but over time they improved, still are. The results came in last week and were in their own way more pleasing that the Masters results: a customer said he’s bought one of our products primarily thanks to the videos, which are what got him ‘hooked’ in the first place…The bosses were right.

If I’d done the Masters first, I’d have been worse at my job

The story above isn’t intended as a blow on my own trumpet. More like an attempt to exemplify that when you encounter or seek out people who believe in the importance of underlying traits, traditional qualifications become irrelevant and empires do not crumble because someone without them has been employed. We put too much pressure and emphasis on squeezing everyone through this education factory that is becoming outdated more quickly with every single day. In a world where jobs and whole sectors can vanish overnight and new previously unknown ones flourish, a complete re-assessment on what qualifies a person to do a job is well overdue.

I loved doing the Masters and it helped to join up ideas and spark new ones, but I’m quite sure it wouldn’t have made me significantly better at my previous job if I’d done it first. In fact, I’m fairly sure it would have made me worse in a number of important ways. I’m even more sure that no degree could have prepared me for my current job and again could potentially make it harder by plying me with preconceived notions of what a marketer should do. What is all this qualification importance actually about then? I challenge anyone to give me valid and substantial reasons why they are still run in the way they are and why they are still upheld as the benchmarks for employment and success. And what about all the genius people with incredible skills that for whatever reasons have been unable to achieve the expected certificates? Our system results in difficulty for them finding work and prevents society from benefiting from their contributions. Personally, I’m much more interested in the gaps and that’s where I’m going next – into other people’s gaps to find out what’s there and how to capture it, or more to the point, how they can capture and validate it themselves!