Fighting Ageism: Talking with Shafeen Mahmood about young people

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Fighting Ageism: Talking with Shafeen Mahmood about young people


Hi, this is Shafeen, I’m an international student in the UK. I came here in 2017 with a scholarship from the British Council. I did a management degree and currently I’m pursuing an MBA in International Business at the University of Greenwich. I also work part-time and am looking for internships, graduate jobs and so on at the moment, as well as being very heavily involved at university and on campus events. For example, I lead a student group – I’m the founder of the Greenwich MBA society which I lead as a President. This student body represents over 500 students at the University of Greenwich. I also volunteer with a charity called Reach out and currently trying to establish my ‘personal brand’ on LinkedIn. Thanks for having me.

Do you think organisations and senior leaders are aware of the ageism issue? Do you think that the HR managers might have unconscious age bias?

I think this is one of those questions that relate to inclusion and diversity in the workplace. And the answer is we will never know. For example, I personally sometimes have thoughts about my own ethnic name, how does it come across in a CV, about my accent because I don’t speak English as a first language. Does my accent play a role in telephone interviews and so on? 

So, in terms of ageism, it is unfortunately a problem that we are facing. Once I had an interview with the SME recruiter for a part-time job and when they saw I was doing an MBA, they literally asked me, ‘Do you mind me asking how old are you?’ And I just thought, ‘How is that relevant to my position and what I have to offer to the company?’ 

So I think it is a very relevant issue, and I think it needs to be supported and talked about at the same time. I’m also a proponent of action, meaning we are what we do, not what we say we will do, right? So what actions are we taking in this regard?

In terms of senior management, we often see these big events and webpages and you know, we’re all for this and supporting that. But when it comes to the real world or actual employability, the diversity is not always reflected. The age issues are not reflected, whereas on the website they could have so many things about fighting ageism, supporting diversity and so on. So I think it’s important to have action in place, rather than just you know, slogans and taglines.

(source: House of Commons Library)

How does it feel to be a young comparison student graduate looking for a job during the pandemic? Do you think it’s harder for young people to get into jobs now? And if so, why?

I think it’s challenging to say the least. Because, obviously, we are going through a very challenging situation, especially students. I think we have a particular test of patience and perseverance to go through and to just hang in there, especially with a downward trend towards student mental health in general as well.

I also personally think the term ‘graduate’ might never mean the same after 2020. The expectations have skyrocketed so much and employers are looking for work experience, they want to see what the student is capable of. Right now, because of our financial situation and so on, semi-experienced professionals are also applying for entry-level jobs, because the UK is currently going through a recession. So if we were to think from an employer’s perspective, especially if they were a SMEs, or the majority employers,  would the employer recruit someone who they need to spend money and time on training, or would they recruit someone who can join them and hit the ground running?

That obviously shouldn’t be an excuse in any way, as students and graduates, we need to upskill ourselves and go in all guns blazing when it comes to student employability.

What are your thoughts on paid and unpaid internships?

I think it’s a very pertinent and relevant subject considering we have student unemployment and graduate unemployment in the UK at the moment. I think it depends on what the internship entails, actually, like what exactly are the remnants and the scope of the internship.

For example, if there are many unpaid internships, which are a part-time commitment, you can easily juggle it with whatever you have going on if it’s only 5 to 10 hours a week. That doesn’t really affect a student on that level and they could still integrate, and it’s a great opportunity to enhance their CV, right? So, in that context, I think it’s a good way to set candidates’ foot in the door. 

At the same time, I feel if an unpaid internship is a full time as for six months, or nine months or a year, this is where I think it gets complicated. The intern could be demotivated and might not see value in what they are proposing to the team and what they’re bringing to the table, and the employer might not take them seriously as well. 

I feel it is a good pathway for students to get into the industry, though. Also, a bit more realistic question we need to ponder on, is what is the alternative? I mean, we have many critics of unpaid internships, and I’m not a big fan of it, either. But the question to be asked is, what is the alternative?

 We have hundreds and 1000s of graduates coming out of university, or while at university, and nobody’s giving them jobs because they don’t have work experience. So if an unpaid internship is not an option, then what is the other opportunity for us? You know, what do I do? This is where, unfortunately, the world goes silent, and we don’t have a response. So, I think unpaid internships, especially when it’s a part-time commitment, is a positive way for entry-level candidates to get some real work experience, and beef up their CV.

What in your opinion organisations can do to support young people, both internally and externally?

So internally, I think employers or organisations can provide opportunities for growth. For example, if they take on an intern there could be a career pathway to give them a clear career ladder. Something to tell them: ‘If you excel, this is where you could get’, giving them a clear map and route where they are going towards.

They could also provide feedback which is very, very crucial especially for entry-level candidates that are wondering: How am I doing? What is the quality of my work? This is a massive learning curve for students like me. We really need this constructive criticism and feedback on how to improve our knowledge and the skill gap.

Externally, I think they could create events for awareness or have more opportunities for young people if it fits within their budget. They could also do an initiative like this one where you could involve individuals and get the word out about students, employability, and mobility. This content of exposure really helps – even something like making an announcement on Linkedin and welcoming an intern to the team is very motivating for him and the others. 

What are your thoughts on apprenticeships, traineeships, boot camps and the Kickstarter scheme? 

I think it’s a very good initiative from the Government for local candidates in the UK. Because all of these programmes give work experience and work experience is perhaps the number one reason why graduates and students are not being employed. 

As an international student, I have a very big support and love for apprenticeships, because I feel that  the UK is very unique in this regard. I mean, I cannot think of any other country in the world where someone can leave high school at 15/16 and by the time they’re 18 or 20 years old, they are qualified in some field. I don’t know of any other country that does this thing and I think the UK is lightyears ahead in this. 

Apprenticeships are a fantastic way to make yourself employable and I think the apprenticeship route is easier, compared to a graduate scheme. So this is something for students to know: when they finish their course and they’re applying for a grad scheme, first of all the process of multilayer is very difficult. And number two: in grad schemes you have competition from international students like myself. The UK has around 500,000 international students, so that’s a huge number, right? But when it comes to apprenticeships, we cannot compete, we’re not allowed to participate in the apprenticeship. So there’s limited competition as well. 

The Kickstarter scheme, again, is a fantastic way for the government to boost student mobility. I absolutely encourage people to do apprenticeships, because once you start an apprenticeship and you do your level 3/4/5/6 qualifications, you are now in a more professionally better position.

Also, I think in the not so distant future, universities will adopt this system of apprenticeships within their degrees. Because if a degree is purely theoretical, with no internship or placement component, it’s going to be very difficult to get a job. So I think maybe those micro internships or something of that sort will kind of sneak a seep into our conventional education system. 

What advice would you give to young people who are trying to get into employment right now and post COVID? Ideally, based on your own experience, what they can do in the meantime when they’re applying for jobs, and they’re not getting them?

I think it depends. So if they are a student, I think the major reason why you might not get a job is because of the lack of work experience. I can’t think of any other major reason that could be an impediment for, you know, lack of employability. So, in that regard, I would suggest you get highly involved in student clubs and societies at university. But here’s a tricky part.

 When I started, I wasn’t involved pretty much in any society or anything, but when I did want to get involved, there were no University elections, nothing was happening. COVID you know, everything’s dormant. So what I did instead is I made a proposal to make my own student society at the university. So I literally drafted a proposal, got some of my other friends to help out and we came up with a new granite MBA society, which did not exist even a few months ago. So the message I’m trying to share is do not stop if you see or don’t have any opportunities – you need to create your own opportunities if you don’t see them. Because I think that shows initiative. 

On top of that, I think it’s a good idea to be on LinkedIn, it’s very crucial. You know, LinkedIn is the new digital CV. Even someone like me, who doesn’t speak English as a first language, I mean, when I start posting there, and there are like, 20,000, 50,000 people reading my stuff, I’m like, ‘Oh, my days, like, what is happening?’ I also had the pleasure of meeting Flora on LinkedIn and joining this initiative, which is a really, really positive experience. Because once you’re on LinkedIn, you find these people you know, who support you and who appreciate your struggles, and sympathise and care for you. So I think it’s important that we put ourselves out there in terms of personal branding. Because we will find a very helpful community, a community that is always there for each other.

Thank you Shafeen!

You can follow Shafeen on Linkedin here. 

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