From education to employment

What did your careers adviser ‘tell’ you? How we can build a careers strategy from more solid foundations

John Yarham, Vice Chair of Careers England and CEO of Futures Advice, Skills and Employment

As a newly qualified careers adviser in the 1990s, I used to get quite upset by the stories of old- fashioned careers advice that people told me they had experienced when they found out what my job was. They were generally a variation of a theme that involved being ‘told’ what to do by their ‘careers adviser’ – who could have actually been their maths, geography or PE teacher – with the punchline contrasting the ludicrous selection that had been made for them with their eventual job. Bearing in mind the year-long, post-graduate training that I had undertaken to enter the profession had focused on empowering people to make well informed and realistic decisions about their journey through work and career, the notion of such a misinformed, directive approach, seemed quite frankly, bizarre.

When I hear the same stories today, I have a slightly different perspective. In some ways, I should be more affected, now leading an organisation that employs over 200 careers advisers, supporting young people and adults across an area stretching from the Home Counties to the edge of the Northern Powerhouse.

I can’t deny that it’s disheartening that the same old messages are perpetuated by a different generation but rather than feeling overly gloomy, the following three reflections have led me to identify how we can improve the situation.

The first is the widespread recognition of the importance of careers advice and guidance. This realisation ironically became more acute for me when I left the careers sector and worked firstly in the further education sector and then when I became director of economic development at Nottingham City Council. Dealing with important issues regarding inward investment, devolved powers and economic growth for Nottingham, the issue of supporting individuals for a more uncertain future repeatedly arose, unprompted, in conversations with employers. Much of the pressure that the Coalition Government faced around the issue when it simultaneously removed funding for both the Connexions Service and education business partnerships also came from employer bodies. This external validation of the importance of the work from its end beneficiaries – employers – is important. The issues of stagnant productivity levels, a potential reduction in the EU workforce following Brexit and the increasing presence of AI in a globalised market place mean that it shouldn’t be a surprise though. German employers apparently formally recognise schools that they recruit from as part of their supply chain. Hopefully we will too at some point.

The second reason is that we now have a blueprint of what we should be aiming for; particularly for young people; in the form of the eight benchmarks established by Sir John Holman in his 2014 report for the Gatsby Foundation. This was a highly researched report, analysing best practice from across the globe and has widespread acceptance.

The Eight Gatsby Benchmarks that he established are:

  • A stable careers programme

  • Learning from career and labour market information

  • Addressing the needs of each pupil

  • Linking curriculum learning to careers

  • Encounters with employers and employees

  • Experiences of workplaces

  • Encounters with further and higher education

  • Personal guidance

The independency between the eight benchmarks gives us a clear understanding of why the stories about unhelpful careers advice perpetuate. Do we really expect someone’s whole career to be mapped out by a one-hour meeting with a stranger? Equally, whilst lots of employer contacts are good, they aren’t a single panacea either – someone may gain insight from a workplace or employer encounter but by the very nature of that encounter, it will be a limited process. The anecdotes around what does or doesn’t work should be seen for what they are – stories. Whilst some responses to criticism of current arrangements have observed that there has been ‘no golden age’ for careers advice, perhaps that’s because we’ve never invested in all eight areas. The strength of Holman’s report isn’t due to any individual benchmarks being particularly ground-breaking but the recommendation that it is the combination of all eight that are the key for good careers guidance. A team is judged on its collective results, not the performance of any individual player. The same principal should apply to careers work. That is why the pilot activity led in the North East around all of these benchmarks has been so important and why celebration (or criticism) of any individual measure as a stand-alone approach is wide of the mark. How well are all of the benchmarks being met?

Whilst the Gatsby work focuses on young people, we also know that the pressures facing career decision making are extending throughout life. I have never believed that careers guidance prepares an individual for just one role; the notion of more rapid career change was being spoken about long before generation Y or Z were born but has clearly become more pronounced since. All-age services are an important facet to the debate and shouldn’t just be a minor issue. Whilst some of the Gatsby benchmarks are exclusive to a school setting, the notion of high quality careers guidance per se shouldn’t be.

The third and final reason for my feeling of optimism is that the careers sector is not a desert. There are areas of really good practice that we can build on. I’ve mentioned the North East pilot for the Gatsby benchmarks. The Careers and Enterprise Company is recruiting a strong group of mentors and enterprise coordinators to support encounters with employers and employees. But perhaps the area of work that has had least coverage is the success of the National Careers Service in supporting adults. Perhaps this is because it supports adults, perhaps it’s because there isn’t enough in the marketing budget for it. Either way, I don’t know of another part of the learning and skills system that has achieved only Good or Outstanding in its Ofsted judgements across the country, as the National Careers Service achieved earlier this year. With unit cost per individual that are less than the price of one cup of coffee per week for a year, the service supports hundreds of thousands of people back into work every year. As the CEO of an organisation running the service in two regions, one of which was judged as Outstanding across the board by Ofsted in January, the real reason that I am relatively sanguine, is the insight I am afforded by seeing first-hand the difference that careers advisers employed through the National Careers Service make to the lives of adults on a daily basis. One of the case studies that I looked at recently was of a man in his mid-fifties who was contemplating suicide having been out of work for a decade. The hope that his adviser gave him not only supported him into work but literally saved his life. Clearly that is an exceptional case but for the thousands of people that we support back into work, the effects are profound.

Anne Milton, the Skills Minster, is likely to announce a new national careers strategy in the next few weeks. When she does, she will be the first Minister to achieve this following promises from several of her predecessors.

Whilst long overdue and at this stage, somewhat of an unknown quantity, it will hopefully start to address the dominant narrative that has pervaded for far too long, that careers advice is poor. With some extra investment and the coordination of activity that builds on the successes that do exist, we can make some of those tiresome stories a thing of the past.

John Yarham, Vice Chair of Careers England and CEO of Futures Advice, Skills and Employment

About Futures Advice: Futures is a not for profit social enterprise specialising in careers advice. Futures was rated as Outstanding by Ofsted for its delivery of the National Careers Service in January 2017.

About Careers England: The trade association for employer organisations and traders involved in the provision of products and services promoting careers education.

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