Careers advice: Reflecting on the challenges we face

Written by: Andy Gardner | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The challenges facing careers advice are well documented. Andy Gardner looks at the main problems and considers how we might be able to provide all pupils with effective information, advice and guidance

It is a good job that most of us careers advisors are of an optimistic disposition. As a careers advisor working in partnership with teachers in schools for more than 30 years in the careers education and guidance space, the feedback at a national level can be dispiriting.

In the past few years, the profession has faced severe funding cuts with careers education being side-lined by government. However, in a changing world, underpinned by rapid change in the jobs market, our role offering one-to-one advice is needed more than ever.

The 21st century world of work is, after all, challenging and confusing enough for adults, let alone unworldly teenagers. Digital technology is advancing at such a rapid pace that many people in work are struggling to keep up.

According to a recent report from EY, 60 per cent of jobs require skills that only 20 per cent of the population have. Additionally, according to a World Economic Forum report, 65 per cent of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist. The need to offer relevant information and give guidance is greater than ever, but at the same time our situation has never been more challenging.

A key issue we all face is the lack of space in the curriculum for careers; £300 million has been cut from careers budgets in the past few years. There is now Ofsted research and statutory guidance in place but with the key priorities being attainment, attendance and behaviour, it is clear where the focus lies in a world of squeezed funding. If you are in a school with your budget cut, possibly in special measures or requiring improvement, it’s clear where your focus has to be, and it isn’t going to be careers.

The political situation has hardly helped. Like so many other policy areas in the post-Brexit world the focus on careers in schools has been on the back-burner as we wait for the promised comprehensive strategy on careers.

We are still dealing with the legacy of Michael Gove’s axing of Connexions and three different secretaries of state in the past three years. Added to this is the new tectonic plate shift toward Apprenticeships and challenging the ingrained mindset that university is everything. There is more need than ever for the one-to-one advice that careers advisors can offer and the “kind voice” we can give to help navigate students through this complex world.

I like so many other careers advisors, have sat with so many young people who in writing a UCAS personal statement remain completely baffled about what to put down on paper. They simply can’t make the link between what they study in the classroom and the world of work. In a world characterised by endless preparation for exams it’s hardly surprising, but the impact it can have on young people’s life chances can be significant.

According to the charity Education and Employers and its Contemporary Transitions report: “Young people, collectively, have never left education more highly qualified, with more years of schooling behind them, and yet they are facing unprecedented struggles to succeed in the early labour market. Whether measured by the ratio of youth to adult unemployment or comparative earnings, young people are struggling to compete with older workers for economic opportunities.”

Furthermore, and damningly, they point out that “the career aspirations of British teenagers have nothing in common with anticipated labour market demand” (Mann et al, 2013).

On the plus side, we now have some established guidelines on what “good” looks like, laid out in detail for the first time. Schools can use various frameworks such as a Careers Quality Award, the Gatsby Foundation’s benchmarks or London Ambitions to improve careers education and guidance.

The established Gatsby benchmarks have eight key criteria. These 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.

It is plainly obvious that any serious attempt to establish these benchmarks in a school will be a massive step towards giving students the careers education they need. According to the Contemporary Transitions report, higher volumes of school-mediated employer engagement are associated with a reduced incidence of being NEET, by up to 86 per cent.

There are a variety of organisations that are dedicated to connecting schools with the world of work. The government-funded Careers and Enterprise Company, which is linking employers to schools, is doing some good work, often in partnership with careers providers such as Career Connect, YC Herts and Adviza. This type of employer engagement with schools is fantastic, but is only one leg of the three-legged stool, which we all know works best:

  • One-to-one careers guidance.
  • A whole-school careers education programme.
  • Employer engagement (which can inform the first two legs of the stool).

Clearly not enough is done in most schools on the difference between a general CV and a directed CV or how to relate your online application to the job specification. Or what about tactics for a video interview for an Elite Apprenticeship compared with a multi-mini interview for medical school?

These careers education issues will involve a complete step-change in how a school does its business, if they are to be implemented in a deep way that addresses the needs of each pupil. But at the moment there just aren’t enough real policy drivers to make the Gatsby benchmarks a reality for every school and pupil.

However, in a world of reduced funding there are some great ways of harnessing digital technology to help keep pace with the changing world and bridge the gap in knowledge.

There are a range of digital products out there that use real-life labour market information to open up the world of work for young people. There are established careers information platforms for schools including Fast Tomato and Kudos.

Meanwhile, I have been collaborating with the Your Life campaign on a new free website to connect A level subjects with jobs, using a variety of data sources Future Finder will point to the opportunities available now, but also in the future. Significantly we have also linked the job roles to what they are learning in school, addressing the need to link careers to the curriculum and provide that answer to the age-old question of why they should care.

Although digital tools can be helpful, having careers connections brought to life by subject teachers could have a game-changing impact. For example, the world of trigonometry and vectors may seem far removed for most young people, but watch their eyes light up when you explain how this can be useful for a computer games developer. This is because trigonometry will be used to represent, change and compare the positions of items within the game world, such as detecting if a projectile has hit a target.

Or what about biology? In biology, A level students will learn about gene expression and cancer. As a general practitioner you will need to know the main characteristics of benign and malignant tumours.

Chemistry A level involves the study of polymers and monomers. This is useful for a dietitian in understanding carbohydrates. Starch, for example, is a polymer made up of sugar monomers. And the list goes on.

Hilary Tait, head of careers at La Sainte Union Catholic School in north London, feels that it is really important to have subject staff who know something about the realities of relevant careers in their own department. She notes that “from our internal evaluation, backed up by the external studies, we have established the strong influence of subject teachers on our students’ career decisions and clearly this must not be ignored – we intend to embed careers across the curriculum and throughout the school”.

By working with teachers across subjects we can help put careers education at the heart of education and not an after-thought. And through an understanding of best practice and putting those principles to work, collaborating, building links with industry and using digital tools we can help give students the best chance of succeeding in the rapidly changing world of work. Now that would be something to be optimistic about.

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