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Making sense of careers

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The launch back in April of a National Careers Service for adults in England has been broadly welcomed across the learning and skills sector.  Universally available to all adults via face to face, telephone and web-based provision, the service offers an opportunity to provide coherent information, advice and guidance to adults. But will it empower them?

Careers advice is essentially a means to an end.  The test of its structures and processes will be their effectiveness in helping adults to navigate the increasingly complex and unpredictable worlds of learning and work.

Indeed, it is impossible to see how the policy aspirations set alongside the National Careers Service last October in New Challenges, New Chances – advanced learning loans, a transformation in community learning, provision that is more responsive and flexible to the needs of citizens, communities and employers – can be achieved unless we get this right.

What ‘getting it right’ might look like was the subject for discussion at a recent NIACE seminar on the subject.  Delegates brought a wide range of perspectives, from adult learning and adult guidance providers to voluntary sector organisations working with groups including offenders, ex-servicemen and women; and carers.  The debate suggested that, as it develops over the coming months, there are some pressing implementation issues that the new service will need to address.  Four main themes came out for me:

1. Getting people to the point of entry. For the most excluded adults, engaging with the National Careers Service will not be their first step but the crossing of a significant threshold.  Ensuring that appropriate provision is in place to get them to the point where they have the confidence, skills and motivation to access the mainstream service – through the voluntary and community sector, the work of community learning champions, etc. – is essential to opening up that journey.

2. Thinking about ‘future adults’. The impact on the adult service of the current fragmentation of careers provision for young people can only be guessed at, but is widely expected to be significant in the long run, especially in terms of increased demand for the face to face service.  This is a major cross-departmental challenge that cannot be ignored.

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3. Providing comprehensive local intelligence. Adults need access to up-to-date information about local learning opportunities and progression routes, linked to wider advice services and guidance on funding learning, to enable them to make decisions.

4. Linking careers services with careers development. In today’s complex and challenging labour market, careers advice needs to be about empowering people to manage their learning and work development, not just about making remedial interventions to help people when things go wrong.  Not only is the latter inefficient, but it also risks positioning the service as a resource for people in crisis rather than a universal benefit.

It is obvious to adult education practitioners that there is a close link between learning provision and both embedded and discrete advice and guidance. Adults, in thinking about their careers, are already engaged in a learning process. Adult learning provision with empowerment at its heart, such as community-based provision, allows individuals to explore their own aspirations, create their own curriculum, and explore their own career options.  We hope that all partners involved in delivering the National Careers Service will address the realities of the careers that people will have in the 21st Century and equip them with the skills they need to interpret and apply the information and advice they receive.

Information does not always lead directly to empowerment. However empowered people tend to have no problem accessing information and advice. It’s how they make sense of that advice that will determine their futures.

Helen Plant is programme manager at NIACE, which encourages all adults to engage in learning

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