The school leavers' guide to getting a job in Scotland

An introduction to your options after school

Leaving school can be strange. After spending so much time in education - and looking forward to having some freedom - leaving seems to come around quickly. You're expected to have plans in place and be ready for the working world. But it's easy to feel the exact opposite - unprepared and anxious for what the future holds. You're more ready than you'd ever imagine, though.

Everyone leaving school is in the same boat, dealing with mixed emotions and pressure from others. While what you do after school influences your future, don't let that deter you from exploring different avenues. You should be excited. There are so many options and it's a great time to kick-start a career.

We'll be looking at apprenticeships in Scotland, where to start looking for jobs and much more to arm you with the right information to make your own choices and start creating a successful career.

A brief timeline

Many of you reading this will fully understand the Scottish school system (having just been through it), however for clarity, we will have a brief recap. After seven years of primary school (P1-P7), secondary education starts in high schools or academies. You progress through S1 to S5, and can opt to stay for S6. In Scotland, education is only compulsory until you're 16. It's likely you'll be 15 when you take your Nationals, after which you can leave to get a job or apprenticeship.

During S5, you'll normally study towards four or five Highers, which would enable you to go on to university in Scotland. If you stay on after S5, you'll do further Highers and Advanced Higher qualifications. Although the Highers you achieved during the fifth year of secondary school provide the entry requirements for university, it's becoming increasingly common for applicants to continue through to S6.

If you turn 16 between 1 March and 30 September you can leave school after 31 May of that year.

If you turn 16 between 1 October and the end of February you can leave at the start of the Christmas holidays in that school year.


The next steps: choosing what you want to do

Everyone will have an opinion on what you should be doing after school. Whether it's an auntie who thinks you'd be suited to teaching or a friend who wants you to join them at uni, people like to let you know. The opinions you're offered will be varied and potentially confusing. Always remember it's your choice.

Some people know exactly what path they want to take, but others will struggle with what to do. Either way, there are some useful questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you want to continue education or does your desired career path require more qualifications? Don't just stay on in further education because you're not sure what else you want to do. If it's something which will progress you in the right direction, investigate your options further.
  • Can you see yourself motivated to get up and go to work every day? You should enjoy what you're doing. Find a role you want to get up for - whether that's doing something with your hands, hitting monthly targets or organising a big event.
  • Could you do some work experience? To get a better idea of whether you'll enjoy something, try and get some experience. It'll give you the best insight into day-to-day activities and whether you'd excel. Be confident to try different things.
  • Does it offer job security and the opportunity to progress? It might not be your priority now, but it's wise to think ahead. Look into the industry and whether it's growing with positions available at all levels.
  • Have you spoken to someone who already works in the industry? If possible, it's a great idea to chat to someone who has a similar role. Find out how they got there, whether they enjoy it and what they'd recommend for someone following in their footsteps.

Scottish Universities

Scotland's education system is one of the world's best - at all levels. It boasts fantastic further education opportunities, including the following universities:

  • University of Edinburgh
  • University of St Andrews
  • University of the West of Scotland
  • University of Strathclyde
  • University of Aberdeen
  • University of Stirling

Dealing with mixed emotions

After spending years with your days planned, surrounded by friends, leaving school is a huge transition. It's an abrupt start to adulthood. On one hand, you have new-found freedom. On the other, you've lost the security of someone else making sure you're on track. Leaving school is a huge change in responsibility.

While you may be trying to focus on deciding what to do, you'll also be dealing with a mix of emotions. How do you do this?

  • Speak to your friends. They'll be going through similar feelings and you can continue to support each other. You might not be in lessons anymore, but you'll stay in touch so share advice and go through it together.
  • Don't rush. It might feel like you need to move quickly, but important decisions shouldn't be rushed. You have time to test out ideas and change your mind. It's normal to be unsure.
  • Don't panic when things don't go to plan. Didn't get the apprenticeship you wanted? Missed out on an ideal role? It won't always go right the first time round. You'll experience setbacks, but don't let them put you off. Try and get feedback to fuel your progress.
  • Focus on what you can do now. When starting your career, it's easy - and daunting - to think about where you should be in 5 or 10 years' time. It's a question still asked at interviews. But no one really knows what's going to happen, so it's best to focus your attention and efforts on what you can do now. Put the effort in and it'll pay off years later.
  • Get excited. You spent a lot of time at school studying. You've worked hard to get where you are. Enjoy it and get excited about where you're heading - you've earned it.

The importance of work experience - and how to get it

Many people leave school confused. It's what makes work experience so useful because you get a great idea of what you do - and don't - enjoy about an industry. Every experience is useful. Even if you decide it's not the right role for you, you could have enjoyed aspects and get a better perspective about where your skills lie.

The benefits of work experience include:

  • It gives you an insight into a role. First and foremost, you should enjoy your job. Being miserable at work doesn't benefit anyone - employee or employer. Instead of relying on what others or the internet say, getting work experience gives you a first-hand insight.
  • It shows employers you've got some experience in the workplace. Even a week in an office can help you adjust to what working life is like - and what's expected of you. Employers know this and will feel comfortable hiring someone who is going to settle in quickly.
  • It provides something to talk about in interviews. You'll often be asked how you've overcome challenges. Instead of all your examples being from school, work experience will give you something to refer to. During your time, it's inevitable you'll have been tested and challenged - explain how you've learnt from that.
  • It gives you confidence. Joining the workforce can be daunting, but once you've dipped your toe, you'll feel ready for more. Support should be available and your self-confidence will soar, ensuring you're ready to impress at interviews.
  • It could lead to a job offer. If you impress and there's the opportunity, short-term work experiences or internships can lead to full-time work. At the very least, you'll have gained a good reference and some contacts in the industry.

If your school doesn't organise or advise on work experience, it can be difficult to know where to start. It's something you can do during the holidays or after you've finished your exams, but it's best to plan to secure placements. Businesses need to prepare - you can't expect to email on a Friday and start on a Monday.

To secure work experience, try the following:

  • Ask about employers who've accepted work experience students before. Whether it's a friend who has done something similar before or a careers advisor with connections, businesses that have accepted work experience in the past are likely to do so again.
  • Try a speculative approach. If there are companies you'd love to work for, get in touch. Explain the skills you could offer and what you hope to gain. You never know unless you ask - if you can make it clear how committed and keen you are to learn from them, many businesses will consider it.
  • Check out The Prince's Trust. They run 'Get into' courses in Scotland to help younger people gain
    practical industry experience - keep an eye on the latest courses.

A breakdown of the different apprenticeships

In Scotland, our apprenticeships are slightly different - that's no bad thing. They're broken down into three types: foundation, graduate and modern apprenticeships. In an effort to hit the 2020 target of expanding the number of apprenticeship starts to 30,000 each year, additional support has been provided in rural areas, funding has been increased and there are more opportunities for older apprentices too.

And it's working. In 2017, Skills Development Scotland announced 26,262 Modern Apprenticeship starts in the previous year. Three quarters of starts were aged 16 to 24-years-old and more than a third were in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) related frameworks.

To determine which apprenticeship is suitable for you, here's a bit more detail:

Foundation apprenticeship

If you're someone who likes to get ahead, a foundation apprenticeship could be for you. It's designed for those of you still in secondary school - the idea is you get workplace experience while still completing your National 5s and Highers, leaving school with well-rounded experience.

You begin at the start of S5, taking time out of your school day to get the necessary experience in a workplace to progress towards a Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) recognised qualification. What's more, you could be spending time with some of Scotland's biggest employers, including the NHS and Network Rail.

The industries on offer are varied too, including software development, financial services and creative and digital media.

Whether you plan to continue with a modern apprenticeship, head straight into work or apply for further education, you'll have the right foundation.

Modern apprenticeship

Modern apprenticeships have been credited with an overwhelming impact on the Scottish workforce. With 91% of apprentices in work after six months after they've qualified, they are a great path to take after school.

A viable alternative to university, during a modern apprenticeship you'll work towards a qualification that's relevant to the industry you want to enter. This could be any of the following:

  • Retail
  • Finance and accounting
  • Construction
  • Healthcare

In total, there are more than 80 frameworks to choose from and you can start this work-based approach to learning as soon as you've reached the Scottish statutory minimum school leaving age.

Graduate apprenticeship

The most advanced level of apprenticeship with the same premise as the others - to provide you with knowledge and experience that's relevant to your industry, but with the potential to study up to Masters level.

Graduate apprentices only spend roughly one day a week at university or college, with the rest of the working week dedicated to work-based experience. You'll be as much of an employee of the company as anyone else, receiving a monthly wage (national apprentice wage). Your employer will also pay for your course fees.

These apprenticeships are only offered in the IT, digital, civil engineering and engineering industries at the moment, but there are plans to extend. Opportunities within industries like cyber security and business management have been proposed.

Diane Greenlees, head of foundation and graduate apprenticeships at Skills Development Scotland, told the BBC:

"Over the next 10 years we are facing significant and rapid technological change across all our growth sectors, along with global competition. Young people now need to have a different set of skills and qualifications to help them succeed in the workplace.

All our apprenticeships are designed to make sure these young people have skills, experience and the confidence and competence to succeed in the world of work much quicker."

The benefits of apprenticeships

Being an apprentice is a rewarding experience, setting you up with the skills needed for a successful career. Sometimes they get overlooked as an option after school - but an apprenticeship is one of the best ways to start a career. You'll be treated as an adult, but given the additional support needed as you start out.

Not yet convinced? Here are the benefits of becoming an apprentice:

  • Support. With both your employers and people at college, you'll have access to a lot of support. You'll learn at a pace that suits you and be able to ask questions where needed, with people checking in and investing in your progress. It's a great mid point between leaving school and entering the workplace.
  • Working towards qualifications. At the end of your apprenticeship, you have a lot to show for yourself. It's a structured training programme designed to equip you with the necessary skills for your chosen industry - that kind of knowledge isn't always a given if you go straight to work. 96% of Scottish employers say workers with an apprenticeship background perform better on the job than those without this head start.
  • Varied day-to-day routine. You won't feel like you're still in school - not only because college offers a lot more freedom, but because you'll be in the workplace for several days each week too. It's an enjoyable way to learn.
  • Personal development. Both your soft skills and your knowledge will develop enormously during your apprenticeship. Make the most of an apprenticeship, and it's a huge step in personal development within just a short time.
  • Earn while you learn. Forget about loads of student debt - you're paid for your apprenticeship, including the time you're studying at college. Graduate level apprentices are the only ones not eligible for student loans or funding.
  • Enjoy other workplace benefits. It's not just about getting paid, you'll also be entitled to paid holiday, healthcare, pension contributions and other perks.

To get involved, the Scottish Apprenticeship Week, held every year, is a great way of seeing how modern and foundation apprenticeships are helping so many school leavers. Events are hosted across Scotland, so keep updated about the latest announcements here.

How much can you earn?

Being paid is one of the most appealing things about an apprenticeship. You get to carry on learning but unlike university or college, you can start earning money. What you'll be paid depends on your age. As a school leaver, it's likely you fall into the 16-19 age bracket. In the first year of your apprenticeship, you're entitled to the minimum apprenticeship wage of £3.50 per hour.

After your first year - or if you're over 19 when you start - you'll be entitled to the following minimum wage brackets. Many Scottish employers pride themselves on paying more.

These rates could change every April and, of course, you could end up with even more thanks to your skills. It could also depend on the industry and how competitive employers want to be. Search around for the best positions.

Source: GOV.UK Minimum Wage Rates

Key education myths

Believing things are a certain way can often hold us back, as we make assumptions about what can - and can't - be done. To make sure no opportunities are missed, check out all these myths people tend to believe, and the reasons why you shouldn't.

  • Myth: If you want a job in a certain industry, you need a relevant qualification.

    Reality: It could give you an advantage and, in some careers, is a requirement. But you'll be surprised how many people have successful careers without having studied something similar at school. Don't be put off investigating further just because you don't have a directly-related qualification. Looking at what route successful people took to get where they are is often a great motivator - many stories will surprise you.
  • Myth: Bad grades will affect you for a long time.

    Reality: If you don't get the grades you wanted, don't despair. There are resits, and you can progress without straight As. Tests only measure a small part of your capabilities and a lot of employers are more interested in your work experience and attitude to challenging situations. If you can secure placements in work environments, that experience will more than make up for some poor results at school. It'll give you a lot more to talk about in interviews too.
  • Myth: Without any experience, you won't find a job.

    Reality: You could have finished school without ever having a part-time job or work experience. That's normal. It won't stop you getting a job, but it does mean you should be focusing on entry-level roles or those which specify training is available. This advice is applicable to most school leavers.
  • Myth: It's all about who you know, not what you know.

    Reality: Don't worry if you don't have any connections in the industry you want to work in. Landing a job just because you know someone in the company is quite rare. Sure, people can pass on words of wisdom and introduce you to their connections - but ultimately, you still need to get their attention and have the right credentials. And that'll help you secure any role - without an introduction.

Altering your perception slightly can have a huge impact on what jobs you'll put yourself forward for. The right attitude goes a long way in securing a position.

Where - and how - to look for jobs in Scotland

Getting started on a job search is sometimes the most difficult part. Scrolling through pages of seemingly irrelevant jobs can be frustrating, especially if you're not having much luck. A lot of it is to do with where you're looking. Keep a focused search, without spreading your efforts too thinly, and you'll be on the right track. Here's where we recommend you start:

  • Careers fairs. Often organised for school leavers, careers fairs gather together numerous employers who are actively looking to train you up and invest in your skills. They tend to be in the larger towns and cities, so have a look at events near you.
  • Online. Most people will start their search online, as there are loads of dedicated sites boasting thousands of listings. But aimlessly scrolling through these isn't going to help you much. You've got to search smartly:
    • Use filters. At s1jobs, you can refine the job listings so that you're only shown positions you'd be interested in. Filter by core skills, location or enter keywords (such as 'entry level' or 'training provided') to get a list of jobs that's right for you.
    • Set up email alerts. Let us do some of the hard work for you by registering for email alerts. You can use the same filters, so you'll only get a notification when relevant jobs are listed. This could help you get ahead of the competition and get your CV in early.
    • Post your CV online. Let recruiters and companies find you. As well as all your efforts in hunting for a job, this will allow others to look for you too.
  • Local newspapers. It might seem old-fashioned, but if your parents have the paper lying around do give it a quick browse for any interesting positions.
  • Job centres. It's worth making an appointment with your local job centre - don't just dismiss it as the place to get benefits. Full of people who can help you find roles, they'll be able to provide advice for school leavers and will know of companies who aren't looking for years of experience. It's a great resource.
  • Company websites. If you have a good idea of the industry you'd like to work in, create a list of companies and regularly check their vacancy pages.

You can also maximise your chances of finding the ideal role by doing the following:

  • Update your LinkedIn preferences. If you don't have a profile, create one. You can change your settings so recruiters can see you're looking for a job and contact you with any relevant roles. Start sharing industry news and updates to increase your exposure. It's only a couple of minutes out of your day.
  • Ask around. Employees will often hear about new roles before they get posted online or elsewhere. If the right people know what kind of job you're looking for, they can keep an eye and ear out for you too.
  • Talk to a recruiter. It might not be everyone's idea of a great time, but recruiters are good at finding you roles. They'll take your skills and interests into consideration and only put you forward for jobs which they believe you have a good chance of securing. It's a nice confidence boost too, as they'll often run through interview prep with you too. They'll know each step in the recruitment process for that company.

You've also got to have the right attitude. If you start your search with a negative mind set, every listing is going to seem uninteresting or unattainable. But dedicate the time and positivity, and the results could be altogether different. Search for jobs at a time when you're feeling full of energy.

Tips for your CV and cover letters

Your CV and cover letter is the first impression potential employers will get of you. You should spend plenty of time making sure it reflects you and your experience. As you've only just left school, this could be limited. No one expects you to have loads of jobs under your belt, but you can make your CV stand out and make the most of what you have done. Treat it like a sales document and think about the following:

  • Any extracurricular activities. Did you take part in team sports, contribute to the school magazine or go on a foreign exchange? These things could be worth including, as they demonstrate further interests and a commitment to doing things beyond your school work.
  • Any part-time work. Similarly, being able to hold down a job is impressive. Even if you don't think it's a relevant position, it shows time management and other transferable skills.
  • Any work experience. Work experience will often be encouraged by schools with time set aside for days or weeks in the workplace. If you got this opportunity, brag about it.
  • Social media. If it's relevant, and if it reflects well on you, include a link to your Twitter, personal blog or LinkedIn.
  • Relevant skills. At this stage of your working life, the skills you've acquired outside of school are equally relevant. They're a great insight into the person you are, what you're interested in and what motivates you. You could include them in a brief introduction as part of your cover letter. Just make sure you link it back to why you're a good candidate. Some examples are:
    • Volunteering
    • Hobbies
    • Handling cash
    • Working with children
    • Speaking on behalf of the school

Of course, you'll also need to include your grades. Emphasise the subjects relevant to the job or apprenticeship and include all your grades, but there's no need to go into great detail about school. Lead with your transferrable skills and interest in the field. Make sure you've got the basics in there too, including a professional email address where they can reach you.

People are getting increasingly creative with how they present their CVs, including infographics and videos. It's something to think about, especially if you think it'll make you a stronger candidate. Again, it typically depends on the industry you want to work in.

Mastering an interview

Interviews can be daunting as a school leaver. You won't have had much - or any - experience, so the idea of someone firing questions at you is understandably worrying. But with the right preparation, you can head to any interview feeling confident of your ability. After all, it's only a conversation - the more you can relax and be yourself, the more an interviewer will warm to you.

To make sure you feel ready, think about all stages of an interview.

Before the interview

  • Research the role, company and interviewer. People appreciate it when you've taken the time to do your research. It shows you're keen and prepared, starting off the interview on the right foot. And don't think you'll get away with a quick search on your way there - it's obvious when someone has just looked at a company's homepage.
  • Look up how long it'll take you to get there. You want to get to the interview in plenty of time, so familiarise yourself with the route and how busy it tends to be. If you're relying on public transport, it's a good idea to get the train or bus before the one which would get you there on time.

During the interview

  • Ask for a glass of water. Even if you're not thirsty, having a sip gives you a moment to pause and think. It's important to remind yourself to slow down - it's not a race and it's completely normal to need a moment or two to gather your thoughts before responding.
  • Be proud of your achievements. An interview isn't the time to be shy or modest. Believe in yourself and what you've achieved so far - whether that's a recent work placement or your grades at college. When you're proud, you'll come across confident. It's a desirable trait in potential candidates.
  • Be yourself. Make sure a bit of your personality shines through - it's what will set you apart from everyone else. The interviewer needs to think you'll not only be a great fit for the role, but also a good fit for the team and that's all about your character.
  • Remember your body language. The impression someone gets of you isn't just made up of what you say, but how you say it and what the rest of your body is saying. This is all about your tone and pitch, as well as what you're doing with your arms and facial expression.

What do employers want to see?

Don't worry if you don't have pages of experience. There are skills that all school leavers can demonstrate:

  • An interest in the role, company and industry
  • Ability to work independently and within a team
  • Awareness of what they can bring to the job
  • Evidence of being trustworthy
  • Communication skills
  • Ability to take instruction
  • A desire to learn and grow
  • Passions outside of school

After the interview

  • Ask when you can expect to hear from them. As a brief question at the end of your interview, you can ask when they're planning on notifying interviewees if they've been successful or not. It's not something you want to dwell on for more than a moment or so, though.
  • Follow up with an email. If you've been in contact with them directly, you can send an email (ideally the next day) thanking them for their time.
  • If you don't get the job, ask for feedback. Use rejection to your advantage and find out what could have been better. It's your chance for constructive criticism, so it's always good to discover how you can improve - and succeed - next time.

Leaving school is a huge milestone in your life. Make it a memorable one by securing a job or apprenticeship which will give you skills for life.

Other useful resources

To discover more information to support you when leaving school, check out the following links:

Leaving school this summer?

Leaving school: your options

How to decide what to do after leaving

The Student Room: Emotional about leaving school

A word of advice for school leavers: 'know yourself and don't be afraid to fail'

A guide to school-leaver programmes: advice from our experts

The top ten skills that'll get you a job when you leave school

Helping your child prepare to leave school

Applying for apprenticeships in Scotland