Susan Morrison: Careers teacher was all at sea

Nick Clegg. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Nick Clegg. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Nick Clegg was on the telly this morning. When the nice lady on that hard-hitting current affairs programme Breakfast TV spoke to him, he jumped like a schoolboy who’d just been caught looking up a faintly naughty word in the dictionary.

The Deputy Prime Minister was on about improving careers advice available in schools. A bit rich of the lad, I thought, since he’s part of a coalition that has systematically ensured that many children will never get to follow the career of their choice by pricing education out of their reach.

Schools, he said, need to buck up their ideas, and give up-to-date advice.

I agree with Nick. Hang on, where have I heard that before? Never mind.

Back in the days when slide rule use was still taught, we got careers advice. Well, it was Mr McMurdo and he sat in an office by himself. On the wall he had a poster. It was a Royal Navy Daring class destroyer taking on heavy seas and winning. Mr McMurdo had always wanted to join the navy. The story went that his mum wouldn’t let him.

Mr McMurdo reeked of quiet disappointment. His life plan hadn’t quite gone the way he had envisaged, and so, in an effort to spare the young people in his charge the agony of watching dreams die, he was on a mission to hunt and destroy ambition wherever he found it.

Upon attaining fourth year, you were ushered to the lair of the mournful mariner and your options discussed. It was quite easy for Mr McMurdo. Male, three O levels or less? Plumbing, car maintenance or the prison service. Three and above? University. Female, any academic achievement? Secretary.

If you broke his rhythm and announced a career he’d never heard of, he simply sighed and looked into the middle distance, as if scanning the horizon for the telltale sign of the U-boat periscope.

Paul Mitchell had eight O Levels and wanted to be a horticulturist.

McMurdo knew nothing of the world of professional horticulture, but that didn’t stop him, this sounded like a dream to be depth charged.

He sat back, narrowed his eyes, primed and launched, “Well, son, that’s a laudable ambition, but many a young lad has sat where you’re sitting and said, it’s horticulture for me. Well, it gives me no pleasure to tell you this, lad, but only a special few ever get to make that leap from weeding to professional gardener. You have to ask yourself, is it worth it? All those years with nothing to show, not even a good salary? No, my boy, keep the lawn for Sunday. Take this wee leaflet. It’s about careers in the navy.”

Days when job in banking was respectable

Banking, now, there was a career Mr McMurdo was keen on. In his day, working in the bank (it was always The Bank, regardless of brand) was the ultimate accolade for the smart boy.

You got to wear a suit. The hours were regular and the respect unbounded.

Why, everyone knew that the new captain of the local golf club was a chap who had been born in a tenement in Govan but had risen to the dizzy heights of Assistant Branch Manager of the Royal Bank in Bothwell. Now that’s upward mobility.

Trustworthy, dour, responsible. The ultimate Scottish career, perhaps? And as for honest! Why, if they lost so much as a tenner, that branch was turned upside down to balance those books.

Of course, the world has changed. Why, now bank managers can misplace £8.2bn, and still have the gall to ask for – and get – bonuses totalling £576m.

Upwardly mobile? Yep. In the same way as an armed robber is a step beyond a shoplifter.

Has-beans need to get up to date

No-one – certainly not Mr McMurdo – could have seen a world where you can sit on the sofa and buy airline tickets to LA and a tin of beans at the same time.

A world where a screen connects you to family in Seattle, plays you a tune you only half remember and tells you the name of the third wife of the actor in the film you’re watching so you can win the argument before going to bed.

Heaven only knows what jobs will be there tomorrow. But I suspect our careers services are still full of Mr McMurdos who remember a very different working world from a decade or so ago.

A career getting cows knocked up

Would we even know what advice to give these days? Some of the folks I went to school and university with wound up doing jobs that hadn’t even been invented when we sat our

O Levels.

Sandra Macdonald is currently working with a company that does something to make cows in Bulgaria pregnant. It involves freezers. I won’t tell you her job title, but you can bet Mr McMurdo had never heard of it.