plotr: the passion behind the vision
As the forward-thinking CEO of careers platform plotr, Jim Carrick-Birtwell hopes to realise a lifelong ambition to help young people access better careers advice so that they can find meaningful work.
His motivation to help stems from his own experiences of receiving limited careers guidance while at school and university. Through his wife, who has held leadership positions within inner city schools, he has also become acutely aware of the difficulties young people face.
“Making the transition from education to employment is one of the hardest moves you ever make,” says Carrick-Birtwell. “If you come from a disadvantaged background and don’t have role models who work, it’s almost impossible to navigate your way.”
Limiting career choices
Having come from a family that valued education, Carrick-Birtwell went to a grammar school in Manchester. He was the first person in his family to go to university when he won a place at Oxford to read English Literature, yet he believes that its careers service led him to a path that was at odds with his skills, talents and personality.
The advice he received was to go into banking, law or accountancy. “No one ever me told me about management trainee courses,” he says. “I would have loved to carry out an entrepreneurial tour of duty in a large company learning about different departments. It took me a while to work out that I love creating things. My passion for directing plays back then has since resonated as a pattern for what I love doing: piecing together jigsaws with lots of moving parts and putting on a show – whether it be a business, a website or a magazine.”
When Carrick-Birtwell graduated in 1992, he had ideas of joining an advertising firm. “I thought I’d waltz into Saatchi’s,” he says, “but at the end of a big recession only the accountancy firms were recruiting, so I ended up at Arthur Andersen”. He quickly realised he didn’t like being in hierarchical organisations or surrounded by numbers.
“I felt that I lacked any fluency for the environment that I was in and instinctively knew I had to rethink,” says Carrick-Birtwell. I ended up in recruitment, which I loved, and have subsequently run my own media businesses which are far more in line with who I am. A basic truism that I’ve learnt, and it’s backed up by all the research available, is that if you find something you’re passionate about and really enjoy, you’ll do better at it. The world is very unforgiving towards mediocrity, so you’ve got to work really hard the whole time to excel. But it’s difficult to do this if you don’t have that fluency with the element that you’re working with.”
While the world of work evolves rapidly, 75 million young people around the globe are unemployed. Turning to the UK, youth unemployment affects over 1 million 16-25 year-olds and, paradoxically, employers report chronic shortages of key skills. A ‘social crisis’ is in progress. The war for talent has hit desperate times and the issue of poor careers guidance has moved centre stage as a strategic imperative for business and society.
“It’s become critical to find a scalable solution that allows young people to understand and map their talents, skills and values to a role they will enjoy and feel passionate about,” says Carrick-Birtwell. “This isn’t idealistic rubbish – they may well end up pursuing careers that they would never have dreamed of. For example, girls might go into engineering. The demand for talents that they may not have considered could drive their careers in amazing directions. We need to align this current and future demand with the supply of raw talent. ”
Fragmented young talent space
While employers used to control their future talent pipeline – via relationships with selected universities – promoting employer branding to the 5,000-plus schools in the UK has become a logistical nightmare.
“Employers can no longer rely on the university milkrounds to cream off top graduate talent,” says Carrick-Birtwell. “The talent pool is nowhere near big enough, and they know that they need to engage young people much earlier. If you talk to chief executives and HR directors, most will say one of their greatest challenges is ‘future talent’.
“Employers want connectivity to young people. They are all prepared to get stuck in and work collectively to help young people understand the skills that are in demand. STEM employers (for careers using science, technology, engineering or maths) for example, realise that 11-14 year-olds must be deterred from dropping the third science at GCSE so they don’t close off a whole swathe of career paths. And they’re prepared to work together to boost the overall talent pool, so the will is definitely there from employers”.
What does the solution look like?
Ofsted is starting to evaluate the quality of careers advice and provision in schools, measuring teachers on the results of career placements after pupils leave education.
Carrick-Birtwell describes this as a ‘perfect storm’. “Currently, teachers are under pressure and time-starved,” he says. “As a free marketplace, schools can be approached by many careers providers but teachers have no idea if they are charlatans or not. There’s a need for leadership in this space. What young people, teachers and employers all want is an efficient marketplace for careers advice. Because it’s never existed, most people find it hard to imagine what a sustainable solution might look like.
“There is no way a careers adviser can ever know all the roles available – only a fraction of them at best. New roles and careers are evolving all the time. We have to blow the lid off this challenge and use digital formats to make every possible career pathway available for young people to explore and discover.”
Carrick-Birtwell describes his vision for plotr as “the online marketplace for careers advice” adding that “something like an iTunes for careers is needed”.
“The biggest websites and internet companies in the world all serve the same function: they democratise knowledge and information,” he explains. “Google helps you to find stuff on the web. Amazon and eBay enable you to buy things. A similar scale of need exists for careers advice. This isn’t a niche need. Stakeholders include every young person, parent, teacher and employer. It makes sense that the market provides a platform to serve this need. It just hasn’t done it yet.”
Collaboration is the key to success
He goes on to describe collaboration at the heart of the vision and solution. “Plotr is specifically a technology solution aimed at meeting this careers and employment challenge at scale. We’re intent upon very broad collaboration with all stakeholders including enterprises and initiatives from the public and private sectors in this space. As platform and tools we aim to connect everything together in a highly collaborative way.
“Our job is to work with all the other solutions in this space and either signpost them for our users or surface their content within this marketplace,” he explains, describing the partnership that plotr has forged with Barclays’ LifeSkills programme as a good model for this.
“Real experiences with employers and workplaces are crucial for helping young people really work out if it’s for them,” he says.
“Barclays has made a serious investment by building a platform for work experience that all employers can use. And it has worked hard to make this accessible as part of the school curriculum. It’s an example of doing something in the careers space in a world-class way. We will make this fully accessible and hard-wired into plotr. Everyone wants the solutions to connect up. Our job is to make it happen”.
Employer-led careers initiative
In 2011, prime minister David Cameron and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg addressed the matter of youth unemployment by launching roundtable discussions with leading UK organisations. The aim was to come up with an employer-led initiative, supported by government, to inspire young people.
From there, the idea behind plotr evolved. Large companies got involved at the outset, taking a lead with trustees including Jez Langhorn, senior VP and chief people officer at McDonald’s; Matt Berry, director of resourcing at Centrica/British Gas; and Andrew Thompson, HR director at Serco.
“We are now working with more than 100 major employers. These, and bodies including Business in the Community, the CIPD, the Education and Employers Taskforce and big business have collectively more than matched the government’s seed funding of the site to date, pledging more than £500,000 in financial support for 2014,” says Carrick-Birtwell.
He adds that some employers have also leveraged their expertise on a pro-bono basis – for example, data technology company EMC has provided online security support and helped design the mobile version of the website.
Psychometric gaming will power plotr 2.0
“Essentially we’ve built the core limbs of the new site in the beta version,” says Carrick-Birtwell.
Plotr has received extensive user feedback from young people directly through the site as well as with facilitated user feedback sessions. Carrick-Birtwell says that comments have been “extremely positive”, describing the site as engaging and informative, although “a more connected user journey is needed” to attract repeat visits. “If you ask young people what they think are the three most important things they want in the site, they say: ‘gaming, gaming and... gaming!’” he adds.
Having built the basic modules (career worlds, resource centre, opportunity finder and employer profiles) Carrick-Birtwell explains that the plotr team is in the process of building the technology that will make the site “an intelligent and dynamic learning platform”. He says: “Currently, it’s a bit like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz – it’s a site in search of a brain”.
This ‘brain’ will take the form of a sophisticated psychometric game that will lie at the centre of the site. It will match users to more than 500 careers, giving them a compatibility score for each.
“Unlike traditional tests, they’ll get to see all of their matches the whole time, from highest to lowest, so that they can explore all of the options,” says Carrick-Birtwell. “We will reconfigure the existing features of the site around these career pages, but with additional information including courses available from UCAS, vocational and further education courses and training pathways, as well as videos of people already working in these careers.”
According to Carrick-Birtwell, the best and most sustainable way to achieve this ‘intelligence’ and make it adaptive for the future is to enable plotr to “dynamically data-mine” careers-focused labour market information. By using core national data sources, and by making them serve as the ‘brain’ of plotr, he believes it can support young people in making better career decisions.
Fortunately for plotr, the UK government is currently releasing public data (in more than 9,000 public data sets). The aim is to make the plotr site a ‘useful application’, using this data to support its core mission of democratising information about careers and the world of work.
“As well as powering the game, we intend to use the labour market data sets to provide infographics to support users’ decisions about careers at every stage in their education,” says Carrick-Birtwell. “We’ll be able to display information such as entry-level salaries, future demand for roles and geographic spread of these positions. We aim to build personalisation into every stage of the site, to make it relevant to the age of the user.”
Vision for plotr
“My ambition is for plotr to step up to the challenge of creating an online meeting place between young future talent and employers,” he explains. “It would be amazing for a British website to lead the world in addressing the universal need for an efficient careers advice marketplace – it is a need that isn’t going to go away.
“There’s a lot of goodwill from employers who want us to succeed. The challenge is to build a product strong enough to grow at scale within our target demographic.
“We can’t solve all the problems in society, but at its crudest level it becomes a numbers game. If we can create a level playing field in terms of access and support for every young person, this will be a huge achievement. It will help them to become more fulfilled citizens, valuable to society and to employers.”