Maintaining great careers provision in a secondary school takes time, courage and a lot of networking. Anna Hall, Assistant Headteacher and Careers Leader, shares her experiences of how to engage local businesses and employers.

Be the organiser

Team up with other schools in your area if you can and host a shared event – this way employers are more likely to engage. Our biggest careers success to date is undoubtedly our annual careers fair that we hold for all of the secondary schools in our area. By hosting such a large event, we ensure each employer who attends meets over five hundred Year 11 students during the course of a day. Employers only give up one day of work rather than having to decline invitations to endless events at multiple schools. Since starting this six years ago, our event has gone from strength to strength. There are a wide variety of businesses that attend from a whole host of career sectors and the feedback from both students and employers is always positive. By organising the event, I ensure that the students at my school have access to these employers at other points in the year too.

Be a networker

It isn’t enough to just organise an event. Networking is super important too. Every year, about four months before our careers fair, I invite every employer who we have ever had contact with – whether that be through work experience placements, or previous PSHE days. I do this because it is always better to invite too many than not have enough to fill the hall. Not all of the businesses will reply to that initial email, but that does not matter. Often they will reply later offering something else if the careers fair doesn’t work for them.

At the beginning, in that first year, securing contacts wasn’t easy! Alongside the work experience coordinator and our careers advisor, we literally phoned and emailed all of our contacts, as well as walked into local businesses to ask for support. We now have more than 300 contacts to work with and to invite to events.

We have really good links with our local fire service and police force. They have delivered on PSHE days and in assemblies in the past, but also always attend our careers fair. Both contacts were made in a pastoral capacity but are now key employers within our careers education.

On the day of the careers fair, I make sure I have a stack of business cards and leave one with every visitor. I try to take a business card from them in return too. I also always get them to sign up to future support, whether that be next year’s careers fair, taking on work experience students or delivering a workshop or small group talk later in the year; I take the opportunity to talk to them face to face and see what they can offer us.

Be the person who asks!

It is so important to take every opportunity to gain new contacts. At local meetings, on your careers leader course (or any other course) have the courage to ask questions and seek support with the delivery of your careers education.

You’re not restricted to local businesses. A few years ago, we attended a local event that was aimed at getting girls into STEM careers. Many national companies were attending. Whilst my girls were exploring the event, I handed out my card to every stall holder – several of which have attended our careers fair every year since.

Parents are a great resource too. They will most likely be local employees or employers in businesses that will often happily give their time and expertise to schools. Some of them will even have a quota of time where they ask their employees to volunteer in the community. I regularly put messages out on our ParentMail system and in our newsletter asking if any parents have an interesting career that they’d like to share with our students, if they can offer work experience placements or would like to attend the careers fair. Every year I am inundated with offers.

The governors of your school are another useful group as they’ll have contacts too and are keen to support when they can. Both parents and governors often have a wealth of information about local careers and apprenticeship opportunities so are certainly worth approaching.

Be aware

If you get to know your area, then you’ll quickly learn which local employers like to work with schools. For us, Lloyds Banking group, Stannah Lifts, Aster, and Bulpitt’s Printers are just a few of the large firms who are willing to support us in a whole host of ways. They have attended our careers fair, delivered assemblies and workshops, supported enterprise events, run competitions, delivered CV writing sessions, taken work experience students, and even been judges in our annual writing competition. These relationships have been built over time and are so worthwhile to our students.

We have a policy of saying yes to as many careers opportunities as we possibly can. We firmly believe that students can’t ever hear too much about their future options!

Our enterprise advisor regularly works alongside me as the careers lead strategically, but also with our students sharing her own expertise with them. She is a local businesswoman. She has good contacts locally and she is working to support us as a school with our careers provision. As a real advocate for supporting young people in their future, she’s possibly one of the most valuable people we’ve engaged with.

Engaging employers is difficult particularly in post-Covid times when many have overstretched resources and less capacity. It is vital that you cast your networking wider than ever to gain the best opportunities for your students.