So, what are Fatima’s career prospects?

This article may cause a bit of a fuss in my extended family, given that we are lucky to have a very talented dancer in it who has just started her tertiary education and training in her art – for which she has worked unbelievably hard since she was small. 

The above advert, by a UK Government agency, called ‘Cyber First’, has greatly offended her and others in my family, and I haven’t seen much commentary to support it anywhere.

The advert – now ‘pulled’ – has been criticised by the Prime Minister’s office as “not appropriate” and there has been much public, press and social media criticism of it.

It certainly comes across as somewhat patronising, and would be equally so had it been a picture of a young man or woman playing football or any other potential career that demands great aptitude, skill, dedication, opportunity, an unwavering eye on one’s dream and no shortage of luck. The timing of this advert is also unfortunate.

The performing arts are probably facing their greatest crisis ever, with performances highly curtailed, theatres facing closure and even rehearsing with others fraught with difficulty.

To offer a little balance to the argument I’d like to put aside the patronising tone and poor timing of this advert for a second and look at the wider issue of opportunity which, to be fair, is what the advert was trying to get at. I think of my own career aspirations when I was at school. All I ever wanted to be was in the uniformed services, which I quickly scoped down to joining the Army and making it as a paratrooper; I have been a sucker for a uniform since I was in the Cubs. I had no idea what the fall-back plan was and would have been devastated if things hadn’t worked out for me. None of my ideas at 18 included running a programme of research, development or experimentation (at school I just managed to get a physics ‘O’ level and no other sciences) or running a design-led document-writing company (no art qualifications at any level and no English literature success at school either). Yet, I have ended up doing both 30 years later, albeit now with crumbling paratrooper’s knees. Who’d have thought it? Not me!

So how did it happen?

Well, having joined the Army for 3 years and stayed for 30, I found that my aspirations, and those the Army had for me, diverged gradually over time to the extent that I decided to leave my chosen career some six years before the end of a so-called ‘full career’. Hence my subsequent role in R&D at Niteworks and then into the design-led company, Salentis, which are admittedly both heavily focused on defence. The change in careers that happened to me is increasingly likely to be experienced by the entire workforce: the Foundation for Young Australians recently analysed 20 billion hours of work by 12 million Australians and concluded that “It’s more likely that a 15-year-old today will experience a portfolio career, potentially having 17 different jobs over five careers in their lifetime”. I guess it will prove to be similar here in the UK.

Some of the colleagues I respect most have had highly varied careers. One of my fellow directors at Salentis pursued a successful singing career, had a record deal and was based out of Nashville; she has taught English to schoolchildren in China and is now a successful businesswoman.

Our marketing and operations lead in Salentis trained and practiced as an NHS nurse, has worked in Antarctica and is now a business coach (and published author to boot).

As someone who recruits people from time-to-time, I value highly the breadth of outlook a varied career profile brings; even those who have only been in the military are more employable if they have demonstrable variety within it. The ‘golden’ military career path of command to operations staff, then back to command and then operations staff once more, and so on, makes for more limited options beyond that career. Give me a former officer with experience in HR, logistics, information systems or procurement any day.

But returning to the arts… Dance is certainly a viable career choice; it is estimated that there may be as many as 17,000 people employed as dancers or choreographers in the UK. But there is the certain fact that Fatima will find such a physically demanding role difficult, though not impossible, to sustain to full retirement. She may become a choreographer, as some footballers become managers or pundits and some paratroopers become senior officers. But, like other tough physical professions, she will probably eventually do something else. And if that time comes, why shouldn’t Fatima work in cyber, or run a small business, be a teacher or a chief financial officer? It would be a crime if, should she have to leave her career in dance for any reason, Fatima found her options to join another industry so closed that she was constrained to unskilled, low-paid work, just because she hadn’t started at the bottom of some stove-piped career ladder and worked her way up it. Making sure that such opportunities exist lies with companies and their recruitment policies, now much more open-minded to the benefits of horizontal recruitment, and also with those who are charged with developing the national skills-base.

For the cyber industry that is Cyber First, whose advertisement Fatima stars in; take a look at the Cyber First website and be inspired. It’s great! Another UK government website tells me that some 43,000 people are employed in cyber security roles in the UK, with a third of roles described as ‘hard to fill’ because of a skills gap. The demand for cyber security professionals is rising too. It’s up 160% since 2011 (according to Tech Partnership) and I have a hunch that the demand will continue to increase. It sounds like a great second or even third career choice for those who have the opportunity and motivation to go for it. We just have to be a little less patronising about how we make that point and be sensitive to its timing.

The wrap-up

To my family member: go for it! Dance! Make it a stunning career; the whole family believes in you and supports you. But, if and when the time comes to seek a second career, don’t short-change yourself. Look around for that opportunity, something that fires your imagination (then, if not right now) and go for it 100%, just as you are doing so impressively at the moment.

Article published: October 2020

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