Overcoming obstacles: a careers case study

Sitting in the dentist’s chair waiting to have a tooth removed, I was so impressed by the nurse who held my hand (I’m a wimp) that I decided to interview her. She looked very young and I was curious about how she’d come into her profession and developed the skills and confidence that she obviously had in abundance.

It is an interesting story because it highlights just how determined young people can be to follow the career they want – and how they often have to fight a system that puts too many obstacles in their way.

From a very early age, Bex wanted to be a nurse. It is an ambition that may have taken root because she has acted as a carer in her family since she was very young. It’s an ambition she has never lost and one that she is still working towards. She doesn’t want to be a healthcare assistant or a nursing associate; she wants to be a nurse.

Bex left school aged sixteen, having struggled through a difficult year that prevented her getting the GCSEs she needed to stay on. There was no way she could get into nursing without the right academic qualifications. She gained Level 1 and 2 in Healthcare and eventually went to college and studied beauty therapy and hairdressing. There weren’t any jobs when she graduated in the area where she lives. She came to the dental practice as a receptionist and was eventually asked to train as a dental nurse when she was twenty years old.

There followed a long period where she worked full time and attended training in a hospital at night. She loves her work, enjoys the caring aspect of her role – and admits to being fascinated by the gory aspects such as extracting my teeth. If she continues in this profession, she’d like to work in a hospital where there is more variety in the treatments and more challenging cases to work on.

But at heart, Bex still wants to qualify as a nurse. To that end, she continues to study and has worked out a long-term plan. She’s is repeating some of her GCSEs so that she can get onto an access to higher education course. She then faces years of academic training – and, as she has a home and responsibilities, she can’t afford to stop working*. However, in the long term she believes that she will qualify as a nurse and she will have a profession that she can draw on for the rest of her working life.

This is a young woman whose caring and interpersonal skills cannot be faulted. Neither has her determination to succeed faltered. But, since nursing is now an academic subject, the system ignores her existing skills and aptitude; she has to tread a path that focuses on her academic qualifications but takes little notice of what she can actually do. It’s a system that also rules her out because she needs to maintain her financial independence.

The NHS is now introducing nursing degree apprenticeship and nursing associate schemes but these are not likely to pay a decent wage and are still not fully operational.

What really impresses me about Bex is that she is taking all these obstacles in her stride. Her sense of purpose isn’t wavering and I hope that one day she achieves what she wants. If she does, her employers will also get what they want – a committed, compassionate and intelligent staff member who is dedicated to her career.

* Back in the day, State Enrolled Nurses (SENs) were trained in hospitals and their nursing education was closely linked to the hospital where they worked. This was a system that existed from the 1940s and recognised that an academic route wasn’t always appropriate. In the early 1990s, nursing education was moved from hospitals into universities; since 2013, all nurse training programmes have been at degree level.


Karen Holmes is the author of

What Employers Want: The Employability Skills Handbook