Are careers advisers qualified to give careers advice?


Are careers advisers not qualified to give careers advice? I was interested to read this article by Mark Stevens on this very topic. Stevens seems to be taking a pop at anyone who would put careers advisor (or I assume coach, counsellor, consultant etc.) on their business card. I don’t want to respond directly to Stevens so much as discuss a wider phenomenon I feel his piece is part of. Stevens for me represents the logic of the Dragon’s Den meets The Apprentice hack. This type pedals a certain form of neoliberal corporate wisdom that is popularised on LinkedIn in particular.  I feel there are a number of themes which often comes out of the mouth of the LinkedIn guru:

  • Looks at success in linear terms

Everyone wants to get to the top, to get the promotion, get the award, get the new post at the better company. Success is discussed in linear terms and so the sort of careers advice that is offered is about enabling this sort of linear progression.

  • Prizes experience above criticality

For the LinkedIn guru experience is always the key, the ability to think critically or to use appropriate techniques is despised in favour of the been-there-done-it hero who can now mentor you to become like them. This particular glorifies the college drop-out and the Alan Sugar esque entrepreneur who starts from the bottom and without privilege or support becomes a self-made millionaire. You need to have gone there a done it before you can help anyone else, the value of distance from phenomenon to analyse and understand them is completely dismissed, learning is gained at the coal face or not at all.

  • Pedals the hidden knowledge of the guru

Linked to this is some notion that the guru is in possession of some hidden secrets and mystical knowledge only they are party to. Just look for how many corporate careers advice articles claim to give you “7 secrets to successful networking” (the irony of secrets being shared online is obvious). Again this emphasises that the guru alone come help because of their hidden knowledge and expertise. Professionals just don’t have the right set of secrets these days.

  • “caught” not “taught” logic

What this all adds up to create is a “caught” not “taught logic. If you haven’t been to the top how can you help others do the same? Success is caught, it is tacit knowledge that isn’t taught in the classroom or discussed in the advisors office you either have it or you don’t. And if you don’t have it, well education won’t help you, you need to hang out round the right people, get yourself a mentor who can transmit success by osmosis I guess…

  • Despises the academy and qualification

There is a temptation in may of these sorts of corners to despise the academy, despise education, rubbish ideas of theory and development of evidence based practice. If you’ve watched any Apprentice you will have seen Lord Sugar taking pot shots at people with their degrees and people from professional backgrounds (think lawyers, accountants etc.) will he look more positively on the likely lad with not a GCSE to his name. It seems thinking is of no value and doing is all that counts.

Now this is a bit of a caricature but I think it holds weight. There is available, popular and labelled as careers advice barring these marks. What we are seeing is a popular narrative from the corporate world that is repositioning career support as coming from a trained and qualified professional to coming from an unqualified individual with business credentials. There has always been this dichotomy I imagine between the technical advisor and the experienced professional when it comes to the support individuals gain access from but I think there are things happening at the moment that sharpens this. Firstly current government policy in the UK very much looks to experienced corporate types coming into schools as the main people who will deliver careers advice. Secondly images on TV from programs like Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice give voice and prevalence to experienced corporate figureheads. Thirdly and I think maybe most significantly the internet has created a soap box for individuals to proclaim their “careers advice” from making them an alternative to the trained careers professional that many are becoming exposed to.

So what should the trained careers advisor make of this? I feel the challenge it creates for us which we may not be great at responding to is to differentiate. I think especially when you look at FE and HE careers work its fairly easy to spot corporate lingo and corporate ideals seeping into the provision of careers work. I feel the danger is to become a light version of what it being popularised online rather than clear demarcating the difference we provide. As organisations increasingly look to get the corporate world “onto campus” the question becomes how the advisor is different and what they are still doing there? It can not just be about availability to students of permanent support or brokering external relationships their needs to be an argument on the level of ideas not just practicalities.

I feel there is a shrinking middle ground for the professional. My worry is that for someone who wants to hold onto some of the traditional ethics around careers advice (client centered, impartial, LMI, rational decision making etc.) but incorporate the corporate ethos we have been discussing they are under threat as to how useful they are seen to be. The trinity of current policy, internet gurus and sector trends in FE & HE create a challenge to careers advice as we know it. Maybe that’s too apocalyptic.

Where this leads me at myself is a feeling I want to distinguish myself at every point from this approach. If this new camp of “careers advisers” is emerging I want to show how different I am from their advice. Taking what we’ve just discussed I think we could look at five key destinctives of how to describe careers advice as I understand it.

  • Non-linear – Careers advice should embrace the idea that there is no ladder. This is obviously not saying that corporate progression does not happen but that we can spot paths to success individuals make and construct what is meaningful to them and that there our predictions do not hold weight over time, we can not plan the future but most manage it’s emergence.
  • Critical – Careers advice should embrace that their are no obvious solutions, the world is complex and resists simple categorisation. We need a careers advice that can encourage clients to think rigorously about the world around, to not take the surface but dig for depth.
  • User-generated – Careers advice is about empowerment, it is not about placement, it sits uneasily with measurable results. What we hope and aim for is the individual we worked with becoming more than they are now.
  • Justice – Careers advice should be aware of the powerful relations that exist in the world, the forces that shape the world our clients exist in look to provide tools to help clients understand and exist well in these contexts.
  • Embraces complexity – At the heart of the academy (at least in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences) is the belief that the world is not straight-forward to grasp. No ready made technique will solve everything. Careers is about acknowledging a whole host of different complexities (how we conceptualise the future, how we understand the world of work, understand ourselves etc.) and helping clients develop tools to cope with these.

So over to you, what do you think? how shoud careers advice me managing itself in our brave new world

11 thoughts on “Are careers advisers qualified to give careers advice?

  1. The analysis is a sound one, I think you are describing the uneasy relationship between careers and employability. The Dragons Den/apprentice approach values only employability and the experts, usually employers, who can offer that expertise. It is this thinking that appears to be at the heart of the government policy around the new careers company. It seems to believe that a strengthened relationship between schools and employers will replace inspiring careers education and impartial guidance. The question is, how do we , as a profession respond to this thinking ?

  2. Another thought-provoking article, Tom!

    It strikes me that the difference is between coaching and mentoring – whilst coaches/advisers (hopefully!) view their clients as the experts, and help them to explore their options and reach their own decision, the company ‘gurus’/ mentors are seen as the experts with the client in a somewhat passive position.

  3. Hi Tom
    I think one of the issues here is that the job title adviser is a poor descriptor of the work of a careers guidance professional. As you say, its up to us to communicate the value of what we do. I like Jane’s differentiation of coaching and mentoring. Personally I think careers work should involve encouraging clients to access the views of a range of people, the point being, as you say Tom, to encourage critical thinking and depth of awareness that different views and complexity exist and need to be wrestled with. The current trend towards 5 steps to/ 7 secrets of articles and blog posts can discourage deep thinking precisely by giving the impression a topic can be boiled down to 5 points.

  4. Thank you for articulating the issues and helping me make sense of the uneasiness I have felt with 1) LinkedIn ‘secret steps’ articles and 2) the promotion of ‘experience’ above credentials in career help sectors. To impartiality and empowerment as benefits to the client, I would add quality assurance and ethical practice.

  5. Tom, this is an excellent and timely piece.

    I’m concerned that some of this rhetoric follows the Goveite logic chain of setting an impossible bar to effective careers advice (knowing everything about all careers) and then declaring that since nobody can possibly do that, then there’s no need to have dedicated careers professionals at all.

    Careers provision can therefore be outsourced to anyone who holds firm enough opinions and can monetise it effectively. After all, in the free market, if the product is no good, people won’t pay for it.

    It’s a seductive set of arguments, particularly in an online environment where the quality of your arguments, expertise and experience often comes second best to your ability to catch the eye and get the layperson nodding with agreement.

    The Internet does present a challenge to careers professionals in this respect. There are people who are peddling the ‘don’t trust the ‘so-called experts’, trust me’ line from a variety of viewpoints and perspectives. How does the profession respond?

  6. Thanks again Tom for taking the time to post another interesting article and I agree wholeheartedly with you!

    I would like to add one comment on the discourse of who should give careers advice and guidance and on how it should be given. Surely this centres on who or what it is all for? I am firmly in the camp of the individual and of empowerment. An informed, empowered individual who has the knowledge and skills to make his/her way through career and life will be as employable as s/he wants to be and on his/her own terms.

    The agenda of employability and of received wisdom from ‘successful’ professionals is one of conformity and control. When you look at the Purcel and Alias research it clearly reveals the desire for our current 30-40 year olds for a work-life balance and does not reflect the self-seeking behaviour assumed by many. So, in fact, the assumptions made by Mark Stevens and so many others only fit a few but are peddled as if we should all want this. There are many ways of measuring success, achievement and satisfaction.

    As to how the profession should respond? That’s a tricky one! Career professionals have always been split on this and in my experience the ‘dragons den’ model is winning. Keep the faith, be vocal, keep up the good work and I strongly suspect and hope that the tide will turn.

  7. Thanks, Tom, for articulating concerns that I have also felt in similar ways. The difference between client-centred guidance which helps an individual to make sense of their world whilst building up their knowledge of options and how to decide, is something completely missed in the current government approach to CEIAG. Social media ‘secrets’ are a way of showing off a set of experiences to give ‘advice’.. Similarly, our work ensures that by supporting a client through the process of decision making and career management, they have the tools for life so necessary for coping with change. I see as positive the demand for us as trained professionals in many recent reports (because of the paucity of trained careers professionals in school-age education) which has been used in the Education Select Committee .

    There is no easy way forward, but I often consider that our job title is wrong if we use ‘adviser’ because that is exactly what the Linked In guru is – an adviser, not an enabler, mentor, coach, advocate, trainer or guide. Unfortunately I haven’t come up with a decent job title for my work though!

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