From education to employment

“Uniformly strong” careers guidance

In his recent address to the thinktank, CentreForum, Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw raised a number of issues aimed across the full range of the education spectrum. The FE sector, as so often happens, came in for some quite heavy criticisms, particularly with regard to careers guidance:

“Preparation for employment remains poor and careers guidance in both schools and colleges is uniformly weak.”

Uniformly weak? I think that’s perhaps going a little too far – as I’ll show in a moment – yet few would deny that there is a problem, especially when, as Sir Michael went on to say:

“Six out of 10 firms say the skills gap is getting worse. Leading industrialists like Sir James Dyson complain that they cannot find the skilled workers their businesses need to grow.”

What is it that makes for weak careers guidance? I was recently speaking to a friend who has been heavily involved in the careers business for a good number of years, and he commented that the major problem with CEIAG is that it’s all back to front. There’s lots about “what interests you” and “what would you like to do” and “what are you good at”, but very little hard facts on what careers and occupations are actually out there, and what kinds of similar alternatives exist if demand for these occupations falls. If this information is given at all, it tends to come in at the end of the process rather than from the beginning.

What this means is that a lot of young people tend to have aspirations that bear almost no connection to the opportunities that are actually out there. Or they’ll tend to pick the “usual suspects” – teacher, doctor, engineer etc. This was borne out by our recent work alongside City & Guilds, which looked into the careers aspirations of people aged 14-19, and found that there were some big mismatches between aspirations and reality. Could this situation be changed with some solid information and facts about demand for careers given at the start of the process, rather than as an add-on at the end?

I imagine that the British astronaut, Tim Peake, has sparked a resurgence in careers advisors being told, “I want to be an astronaut”. How does a careers advisor deal with that? One possibility is to play up the chances without any dose of realism: “Jonny, that’s great that you want to be an astronaut. Here’s what qualifications you need. Go for it. See you in space.” A second possibility is to play down the chances, again without any does of realism: “Jonny, that’s just not going to happen. You like travelling though? Great, have you ever thought about becoming a courier?” Okay, these are both exaggerations, but hopefully you get the picture.

How about a third possibility, one where Jonny’s interests, hopes and skills are channeled into something more realistic, on the basis of what the job market is likely to look like in a few years? So when Jonny comes to see the careers officer and announces his hopes of working on the International Space Station, rather than playing up to this aspiration, or doing it down, the careers adviser takes the time to find out what Jonny’s interests and skills are, and then matches it to actual labour market demand. In other words, careers guidance should be all about matching aspirations with reality, and where those aspirations do not tally, walking the young person through a number of similar careers which utilise their skillset, but where there are likely to be positions when they qualify. This gives the child something tangible to work towards and in turn fuels their aspirations. And of course if it were uniformly applied, it would start to fill in all those skills gaps that so obviously need filling.

I mentioned at the start that Sir Michael’s characterisation of careers guidance as being “uniformly weak” was not exactly fair. There are examples of colleges that are doing great things, using the model I have set out above – facts shaping aspirations – with Ofsted itself confirming this.

For instance, the careers service at Chichester College, Positive About Futures, was singled out for praise by Ofsted in their Outstanding grading of the College back in 2014:

“Managers and staff provide extremely useful and pertinent information, advice and guidance to ensure learners make informed study and career choices. The ‘Positive about Futures’ team is particularly effective in providing detailed information on employability and labour market trends for managers and teachers to use to inform curriculum planning. Learners make very good use of an on-line resource that provides clear information about jobs and employment opportunities across the region.”

The careers service at Chesterfield College has likewise been praised, both by Ofsted, who noted, “particularly good information, advice and guidance ensure learners are on the appropriate programmes”, and in a Matrix Assessment:

“Of particular note is the creation of personalised web pages (P-URL) for all prospective students, into which individually tailored information including localised LMI has been incorporated … This is an excellent way of presenting tailored information to prospective students, and one which was seen during the assessment to impress service users and to encourage them to explore the information further.”

Other examples could be cited, but what connects both the Chichester and Chesterfield approaches is that of getting solid facts and information to students and prospective students early on. By doing so, they are giving young people a far better chance of training for a career that actually exists, a far better chance of motivating young people, and a far better chance of fixing the skills gap. It can be done. It just needs a change in thinking, and a readiness to get the facts on the ground in front of young people early on in the careers process. Applied throughout the sector, we could one day hear a major public figure describing careers guidance in colleges as uniformly strong.

Andy Durman is the Managing Director of Economic Modelling Specialists International UK (EMSI UK), the labour market information firm

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