A recent report by the House of Lords social mobility committee has claimed that young people who don’t go to university are "overlooked and left behind". The report argues that while there is so much focus on the numbers entering university, the majority of young people in the UK do not opt for academic study after the age of 16, and for those in this situation the system is "complex and incoherent".

According to the report:

"Careers advice and education are being delivered in a way which means that too many young people simply drift into further studies or their first job, which often has no real prospect of progression."

The Committee chairman, Baroness Corston, says that the current system for helping people move from school to work was failing most young people:

"To focus on university or apprenticeships, to the exclusion of other routes, is to the detriment of many talented and able young people. A young person considering their options for further education or employment is presented with gobbledygook – it is totally unclear to them how they can get the skills needed for a successful career."

Nick Newman, founder of National Careers Week, agrees that the current approach is failing, but while he believes that a huge overhaul of the careers advice given to young people is needed, he cautions against yet another short-term approach:

"For 30 years we have experienced a lack of investment and clear strategy to prepare young people for the world of work. It is clear that we need change and it is clear that Government priorities will continue to shape and dominate the short term picture. What we must not lose sight of is the need for any change to be sustainable and for the emphasis to be on what is most useful for enabling young people to take advantage of the exciting employment opportunities and skills needs of the UK going forward. The right solution is a flexible and fluid approach to personal skill building which supports and enables young people to pursue either an academic or more practical education beyond secondary education." 

The Lords report led to an interesting discussion on Radio 5 around the theme “Can you really make solid career choices at 14?” Amongst the contributors, it was clear that there were those that had clear ideas of what they wanted to be even from a very young age, and there were also those who were in their fifties and “still don't know what they wanted to be”.

The fact is that the vast majority of 14-year-olds will end up doing multiple careers, and in actual fact many of them will almost certainly end up working at some point in occupations that don’t even exist right now. That being the case, we might ask what exactly is the point of giving careers advice to 14-year-olds at all? Furthermore, how is it possible to get away from what Baroness Corston describes as gobbledygook, to instead showing young people clearly how they can get the skills they need?

To answer the first question, we need ask what the role of careers advice really is, or at least what it should be. If it’s true that most young people will work in a number of occupations throughout their lives, then trying to chart a definite path to an end point is clearly a futile exercise. However, if careers advice is seen more about advising what the options are for the first rung of the ladder, and then for possible subsequent rungs, then we can gain a clearer and more defined idea of what it should actually look like.

To effectively advise on “first rung” career options, the value of objective local labour market data cannot be stressed too highly. At the moment, careers advice often focusses on the subjective questions of “what do you like” and “what do you want to be when you leave school,” and the result is in many cases a somewhat nebulous haze of good intentions but without any solid direction. Yet introduce objective occupation data into the discussion, such as are there likely to be jobs in the careers that interest me, how much do they pay, and what are the transferrable skills in this occupation, and you are far more likely to produce the kind of coherent system called for in the Lords report. The solution is therefore neither the rudderless questions of subjective likes and dislikes, nor is it about planning a fully structured career for life. Rather it is simply about giving people more information, more motivation, and more self-reflection for what interests them.  

This then ties into the second question, which is about how careers advice can be improved to show young people what they need to do and where they need to go to get the skills they need for successfully getting on that first rung? The answer lies in tying the objective data mentioned above directly to education and training. We have a number of partner colleges throughout the country who are using data to answer the objective questions about job demand, wages and transferrable skills, and who then link this to relevant courses in their institution.

The result is a system that avoids the “career drift” highlighted by the Lords report, and instead gives young people clarity on the occupations which are really out there, the skills they need to learn in order to get there, and where they need to go to learn them. If we really want to make sure that thousands of young people are not overlooked and left behind, drifting into jobs with no real prospect of progression, a joined up and objective approach to careers must surely form a big part of the solution.

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