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Students and the labour market (part 1)

In this section, we will look in detail at two perspectives on students and the labour market:

  • Brown and Hesketh (2004b)
  • Tomlinson (2007)

Brown and Hesketh

Brown and Hesketh (2004b) suggest that students can be classified into two types: Purists and Players.

It is argued that Players see employability as the playing of a game, or the acting of a theatrical role. This involves the construction of story lines that send messages about one’s suitability for employment.

Players may never get the opportunity for being themselves at work…They understood that in congested markets the self must be presented as an expression of work. You had to convince employers that work is life (p.135).

In contrast, the Purists are meritocrats who believe that the job market operates in a fair and effective way.

The Purists exhibited a high degree of faith in the job market to serve as a fair and efficient means of matching the right people to the right jobs (p.138).

Employability is a technical puzzle involving finding the right match between self and opportunity. It is a question of:

…...finding a job that offered the right fit with their knowledge, personality and aspirations: a little like fitting square pegs into square holes (p.140).


In contrast, Tomlinson (2007) proposes an ideal-type model of student orientations to work, careers and employability. The model consists of four ideal types:

  • Careerists: strong work ethic and highly flexible.
  • Ritualists: more passive and less ambitious.
  • Retreatists: abandon labour market goals.
  • Rebels: actively abandon labour market goals (a hypothetical category in this study).

Olivia, a careerist, says: ‘I know what I want, I know how I am going to get there and I’m going to try my damned hardest to get there…’ (p.294).

Tony, a ritualist, says: ‘I’ve always wanted a career but for me it is never going to be the ‘be all and end all’…’ (p.297).

Lyndsey, a retreatist, says: ‘I don’t really think that I want a career as such…..I’d rather change the world!’ (p.301)

As indicated above, rebels were a hypothetical category in the study. Evidence of students actively rejecting certain labour market goals may be seen in students actively protesting against the presence of certain employers on campus such as British Aerospace, the Army and Monsanto.


Activity and reflection questions

Now read the chapter on Players and Purists by Brown and Hesketh and the article Graduate Employability and Student Attitudes and Orientations to the Labour Market by Tomlinson.

  • How far do you agree with the different typologies outlined?
  • What implications do they have for the perception of the careers service by students?
  • Finally, consider career development theories. How can career development theories be related to these ideas?


Here are some of my thoughts in relation to the questions above.

The typologies
Typologies of students are not a new phenomenon in labour market research. Paul Willis famously used a respondent-generated classification of ‘lads’ and ‘ear’oles’ to distinguish between academic and non-academic pupils at a 1970s state school in the Midlands. More recently, you may have come across generation X and generation Y theory. In addition, Bill Law has recently talked about Alphas and Omegas. Even within informal undergraduate culture, you will be familiar with terms such as ‘hacks’, ‘slackers’ or ‘saddoes’ to describe various groups. It is worth considering the relative strengths and limitations of typologies in relation to groups of people.

Brown and Hesketh draw from a relatively small sample of 60 graduates (pp. 5-6). As they acknowledge, this sample is not necessarily representative of all graduates entering the labour market, and is focused on graduates applying for fast-track management programmes. It is of less relevance to students with alternative career ideas.

Tomlinson conducted a qualitative survey of 53 undergraduates, and in some respects his study goes beyond Brown and Hesketh by additionally exploring the career ideas of students who are not interested in fast-track routes. The survey was conducted in a pre-1992 university. We will spend some time looking at students from post-1992 institutions in a later section.

Perceptions of the career service
It may be that Players, Careerists and Ritualists will be attracted to the career service as it can provide them with the knowledge and skills to present themselves well in employers’ selection processes. Players, however, may find career helpers’ focus on self-fulfilment via work, or matching with occupations, rather quaint.

It may be that Purists, Ritualists and Rebels will find any career service focus on presenting or modifying the self for selection process off-putting. This may discourage them from visiting. Indeed, Ritualists and Rebels may struggle with conventional approaches to CEIG provision. This raises questions for client-centred career services on how to better tailor services towards these groups.

The enthusiasm of Purists for matching or fitting approaches may enable them to see the advantages of computer-aided guidance programmes. Career educators may also need to help such students encounter and understand non-matching approaches to career development.

Career development theories
The Careerist and Purist stances seem to link with traditional matching or fitting approach to career education and guidance exemplified by Holland. There are also links with the emphasis on finding self-fulfilling occupations in Super’s developmental view of career development.

The Players seem to take a game-playing approach to career development. This can be linked with Savickas’ work on narrative construction. It could be argued that they take a post-modernist approach, refusing to take either self-fulfilment or themselves too seriously. This can be linked to Edwards’ work on discourse and confession.

Ritualists take a more instrumental approach to the labour market. This can be linked to the many sociological studies on the instrumental worker. In addition, this can be associated with post-matching and post-DOTS perspectives on identity. The Retreatist and Rebel positions can be related to critical approaches to career development theory.