Mel Craven is a Careers Operational Manager with a fascinating story to tell. Her rich and varied background and travel experiences ultimately led Mel to pursue her own dream career pathway.
Tell us a bit about you and your background
My history in the careers space goes back to the 1990s! I first started off as an employment advisor, supporting the unemployed back into work placements. I really enjoyed the role, even though I was quite young, and it could be a challenging environment. It was good fun and I worked with a great team. That was my starting point into helping people where they wanted to go and where they wanted to be.
After that, I went travelling in Australia. An initial one-year experience led me to sporadically travel on and off for seven years until I eventually resettled back in the UK.
Upon my return, I was doing odd jobs, before having my daughter. Then I went back out to Asia and spent as much time as I could abroad until she was due to start full-time schooling.
While I was away I took the opportunity to explore what I was good at and examine my strengths. This took me back to employment advice, which I’d found to be particularly enjoyable.
As it turned out, I came back to complete the qualification in careers guidance while studying part-time at university. I also ran a small ironing business to supplement my income.
At the point of completing my course in Huddersfield, the Connexions careers service collapsed so there were very limited careers advice roles available.
As a newbie, I really struggled to get into the sector and I ended up going back into employment advice, before taking a role at the National Careers Service.
This was my opening into careers guidance, initially with adults looking to get back into work. It was great experience but it became like a machine, writing CVs all day long, and getting people through a process as quickly as possible.
I became disillusioned, however, this changed when I met a lady who was a Vice-Principal at a school. She’d wanted to switch careers to health and beauty!
We got on really well and I was tracking her to see where she’d end up. And as it happened, I saw a job opening at her school for a careers advisor and she recommend I apply. This was my pathway into schools.
How did you find out about working for Progress Careers?
I wasn’t looking at the time. In my previous two roles, I became a careers leader and did this for around six years across two schools. But I’d become quite stagnant and ended up moving to another Trust.
It was at this point that I’d logged onto LinkedIn and saw that the previous Progress Careers Manager, John, had posted a job advert. Coincidentally, we went to uni together!
John sent me a message and said: “Mel, you’d be ace at this!” I hadn’t spoken to him for about 10 years, and it was through the power of networking that we reconnected.
This conversation led me to the Operational Manager job, which I’d applied for and subsequently went through the interview process with Paula (Thompson, Operational Executive) Cath (Martin, MIS, Contracts and People Manager), and a former colleague in HR.
Has the role matched up to your expectations/anything you didn’t expect?
I knew it’d be a job that would keep me on my toes! But I didn’t quite realise how fast-paced it would be. Everything I’m doing is in my job description so there are no unexpected surprises, but the pace is relentless. I don’t always get the chance to reflect so I plan my days effectively to ensure I can catch my breath and get proactive with my forward planning.
Take us through a ‘day in the life’ in your role
There isn’t such a thing as a typical ‘day in the life’ as every day is different. In fact, each month has varied. For example, from December 2021 up until now (February 2022) it has been all hands on deck, and I’ve been doing a lot of delivery while also supporting staff. So these last few months I’ve conducted a lot of careers guidance interviews and I’ve also been managing schools and staff. Meanwhile, other days can be dictated by emails, some by meetings and others will involve conducting follow-up activities.
What would you like to do more of?
I’d like to spend more time working one-to-one with career leaders as they have such massive roles. Some of them are new in-post and I’d like to help them comprehend how massive the careers landscape is and how they can create plans of action. This involves interpreting destination data and taking a more strategic overview.
This type of quality time is so important.
How do you see CEIAG evolving to meet current/future needs of young people?
I recently had this conversation with someone on the board of directors at a Trust. In some ways, we’re tied to an archaic system that emphasises Maths, English, and Science as the most important subjects. But we’re not focusing on allowing students to come out of schools with qualities and employability skills. I think it’d be great to work with young people to better show them how to use their skills and qualities.
Of course, there’s the technology aspect as well. Why are we not using more digital formats to encourage this? For example, if we can’t conduct in-person work experience, why can’t we use tech such as Virtual Reality (VR) to provide immersive work experiences? Then students can experiment with different jobs and job roles within certain sectors. I think this would really help. The reality of this happening is somewhat unclear.
Added to that, there are new initiatives being introduced such as T-Levels. I think they’re a good idea in principle, but we’ve been here before and they’ll need a massive marketing push.
Finally, we also need to better understand the different developmental trajectories of young people and recognise the varying speeds they’ll undertake in their career journeys. Careers guidance needs to become less linear and more personalised to promote the wide variety of routes and timelines that can be followed.
What’s been the most rewarding moment of your career so far?
At a previous school, I was involved with a ‘lost’ student who had not enjoyed the greatest upbringing. They always had to fight and battle but they had a great drive and ambition and possessed fantastic digital skills. They were also quite entrepreneurial. I’d put this student forward for the Princess Diana Award and their mindset immediately stood them apart.
As such, they were recognised and invited along to Facebook HQ, to be a voice at an anti-bullying summit.
Unfortunately, there were some logistical issues getting the student to America, where the event was being held. However, we sorted that out and they had an amazing time.
From the time they came back, their opportunities grew. They had so much confidence and ended up being taken on as a partner by Adam Corbally of The Apprentice fame.
They now work with Jamie Oliver in London, on projects aimed at ending food poverty.
I’ve always remained friends with this individual and to me, they symbolise what can happen when you take advantage of the opportunities presented, simply by having conversations and networking. They’re now doing things that I never thought possible when we’d first met.
Why are you working here (and doing what you’re doing here) rather than anywhere else?
One thing that’s been really noticeable since I came onboard is how much everyone cares. Across all the subsidiaries everyone cares about the students and each other and we’re all in it for the greater good.
I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a company that cares so much. I’m well looked after, part of a team and I feel that I fit in.
The personal stuff
What are you binge-watching right now?
I’ve just finished The Tindler Swindler. You could see what was going to happen a mile off but it was fascinating viewing!
I’m more of a music fan as opposed to a binge watcher but this film captured my attention.
What’s next on your personal bucket list?
I’ve just signed up for Roller Derby, which can only be described as a 12-week battering! I’m waiting for a holiday. I’d quite like to go back to Asia but I’m not fussy. I just want some sunshine! In the future, I’d love to go trekking in South America.
What’s the last thing you did that took you out of your comfort zone?
This job can take me out of my comfort zone but not in a bad way. I have a voice disorder and it can make me feel self-conscious sometimes when speaking at schools and in front of leadership teams.
Occasionally people can pass comments and that can be difficult to deal with but that doesn’t stop me from communicating.