What’s Wrong With Careers Work?

Flickr by Robert Fornal

Flickr by Robert Fornal

This is a bit of a stick my neck out post. I love careers advice and the careers advice community but I have recently been challenged to think through what it is good at and where it comes up short. I feel we do a lot well but that there are a number of challenges I think need engaging with rapidly to move the profession forwards.

1) Individualistic Therapeutic Basis

When I was trained to become a Careers Adviser (an experience I was very grateful for and very positive about the general quality of) the general focus was on what I would see as an individualistic therapeutic basis. The basic model of practice was to imagine a trained careers counsellor seeing individuals for a series of one-to-one appointments. This either saw the purpose of careers work being the individual and their rights to be supported to towards their goals (a liberal basis) or the need to work with disadvantaged individuals overcome whatever inequality besets them (a social justice basis).

This basis is out of step with the general direction that education is moving. Education tends to be based on big scale solutions, this is mainly created through league tables that measure whole cohorts. This forces advisers away from understanding the individual towards understanding how education works as a while with a focus around targets and league tables. Alongside this education is increasingly become massive, populations are rising increase the size of institutions and HE in particular is looking to bring on board international students, distance learners and generally grow its cohort. These twin pressures of league tables and massive cohorts alienate the traditional careers adviser who wants to work in a mainly one-to-one setting.

What I am proposing is absolutely not that we give up with one-to-one work or that it has no place. Rather I feel careers practitioners need to start thinking as educators as much as counsellors. Education is about working with groups to help individuals, building experiences that helps that individual gain capacities. While counselling tends to ask “is this person going to make a change” education is more about asking if a cohort has the capacity to manage change and uncertainty. It is more than just putting on a group work but gaining skills in how to design and implement curriculum. Obviously some career workers do this exceptionally but in general I feel the profession does not prize and develop curriculum design and delivery skills/ So what I am arguing for is more about groups, more about communities which support each other and more about capacity for change rather than prediction. I feel these focuses respond better to the educational landscape we now inhabit.

2) Division Between Curriculum and Careers Development

Following on from the previous point because Careers Development has its routes in counselling and working with individuals it has not worked so closely with curriculum historically. The attempts at engaging with curriculum (think DOTS, PDP lessons, HE award schemes and employability modules) tend to step away from established curriculum. Most students who experience curriculum either in a schools or HE setting experience academic subjects and careers development as different entities. Careers Development is still seen by many as something to aid transitions or support those who struggle to develop (in the form of an A&E like service).

Despite the growth in focus on employability, especially in HE, careers development in any form is almost universally talked about as different from core academics. Core skills such as Self-Awareness and Opportunity Awareness are not seen as sitting alongside Comprehension, Mathematics, Computer Programming or Written Argumentation. This generally means that students are confused about how careers development relates to the core task of their studies and torn between the separated worlds of career and academic development. This secondly makes the careers professional on the outside looking in, bartering for time and space rather than at the center of what goes on.

I feel careers work needs to make a bigger play to sit at the main table in terms of what educational outcomes we can offer. It should equip students with capacities which for want of a better phrase are fundamental to any form of development and should enhance any curriculum when the two are put side-by-side. Careers professionals I feel should stop fighting for time alongside the curriculum and start arguing and agitating to be part of the curriculum. For me the gold standard for this would be core assessed qualifications at GCSE and A-Level. Awards I feel HE institutes would be very interested in when you consider the employability agenda in HE.

3) Siren Call of Recruitment Practices

Flickr by insert_user_name

Flickr by insert_user_name

Recruitment-type practices are becoming increasingly dominant inside HE, unemployment support and increasingly inside schools (think the growing focus on employer engagement). CV checking, job search support and employer engagement among other are ever increasing realities. There’s a degree of logic to this with the way targets are becoming more prevalent across all three sectors but this is often ignores how recruitment practices and careers development are at odds with each other. Ultimately if you consider how a recruitment agency operates it aims at filling it’s vacancies, it only aims to attract enough candidates so that it stands the best chance possible of filling vacancies and creating income. When careers work models recruitment type practices it ignores the fact that this is at odds with the claim that HE enables employment. A lot of placement services, employer engagement strategies and employability programmes are limited in that they will only ever fill the number of vacancies they create which are never enough to support all students. This perspective is adopted at the expense of asking what equal provision would look like or how to make sure all students can find work. Placements and employer engagement are not necessarily wrong in my opinion but more focus should be on helping all students rather than just creaming off the top.

4) Lack of Confidence in Expertise

I remember my time on placement from my careers qualification, I learnt a lot from some of the practitioners I worked alongside but I noticed two things that troubled me in some of the advisers, firstly a lack of interest in theory and secondly a lack of focus on agreed models of student support. Theoretical perspectives and evidence based models of practice across one-to-one and group work form the mainstay of most careers qualifications but it seems they are often set aside by professionals. If you were trained on the QCG ask yourself when was the last time you fully contracted before an appointment or considered a what theoretical perspectives would inform your group work. I want to make a large standard that I apply to myself as much as anyone else, on the whole careers advisers leave behind the standards which their training is based around and as a result surrender their critical differential in a crowded marketplace where a host of other outfits clamour for a slice of the careers sector pie.

Why are these standards so quickly left behind. I have a number of reasons.

  1. Most of the skills are hard to learn, especially in an intensive year.
  2. Most practitioners are week on why to adopt standards even if they know how.
  3. Most employers do not see rigorous enforcing a code of practice as part of the picture of meeting institutional goals.
  4. There is little or no policing of standards in careers work which pays careful attention to what students are taught on careers advice courses.

Now maybe I have had overly negative experiences, others feel free to correct me, but there seems to often be a chasm between training and practice which means practitioners often drift away from their distinctive practices. This is not helped by the lack of regulation around delivery, both in a HE and schools context there is often little inspection of careers work and when there is those doing the inspecting tend (think OFSTED) to have a lower standard for careers practice than those who offer the training do. The focus on quality is almost always around quality of results and not quality of delivery often leaving practitioners unclear about if the standards they learnt are the best way of hitting the targets they are set. Just try asking a HE careers adviser when the last time was they fully contracted and if full contracting is necessary for a quality one-to-one service which affects DLHE results.

5) Unconvincing Narratives Around Success

Flickr by Alosh Bennett

Flickr by Alosh Bennett

For some reason careers work has always struggled to convince those outside of the profession on mass that what they do is worthwhile and that they are good at doing it. Try this as a dinner party experiment, ask which of the following 5 professions is the most skilled:

  1. Counselor
  2. Teacher
  3. Careers Advisers
  4. Social Workers
  5. Lawyer

Who do you think comes out on top? Most of these professions require a similar amount of training (1-2 years post graduate) and attracted a similarly profiled undergraduate (humanities/ social science students) and yet I reckon few people would place careers workers at the top of the pile.

Careers advisers also often face a problem which the others don’t, arguing if they are needed at all. Michael Gove variously complained about teachers, social workers and careers advisers but he only argued that careers advisers were irrelevant to society. Political will is one problem but the profession it seems has never as far as I can work out been entirely persuasive about arguing what it does and why it matters. The profession tends to feel that it is so obvious that what it does matters that it has not grasped the nettle of understanding that a lot of people don’t agree and looking to change and re-imagine its professionalism in a way that is more generally persuasive.

I have been deliberately harsh but I want careers work to get better and I feel we are not grasping an opportunity. Increasingly the profession is being driven out of schools and re-worked in HE. We need to think new thoughts in this brave new world not just rehash arguments for old ones.



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