Imagine if career guidance and employability could join forces

This piece was originally published by the Institute of Employability Professionals in June as part of the IEP Journal.

As employability professionals you are probably aware of the existence of the National Careers Service and the wider world of career guidance. Career guidance professionals work with clients to help them to manage their life, learning and work, to develop and articulate their skills and to make career decisions and transitions. They work with people of all ages and stages in life and use a wide variety of different techniques and approaches to help people. Given this description you might be forgiven for exclaiming ‘but, that’s what I do!’ There is a lot of ink spilt on the differences between employability work and career guidance, but there is certainly a strong case to make that they are at least very similar activities if not just versions of the same thing. Both are about working with clients, customers or students to help them to make positive steps in learning and work, both are usually (but not always) funded by the government and both can often be heard decrying the fact that their work is undervalued and poorly understood.

In this article I want to reflect on what employability professionals can learn from career guidance and to argue that the best way forwards for the two professions would be to come much closer together.

Lessons from the evidence

Career guidance received a substantial blow in 2010-2011 when funding was withdrawn from the youth-focused Connexions service. At this point Michael Gove, who was Education Secretary at the time, challenged the careers sector to provide evidence that career guidance works. The sector responded, but the government ploughed on with making its austerity-fuelled cuts. Since then there has been an enormous effort to develop the evidence for career guidance. We now have much more clarity about the kinds of impacts that career guidance has on individuals’ motivation, engagement with work and learning, and ultimately on their career success and lifetime earning potential.

“The evidence says career guidance works.” Not my words, but those of Rishi Sunak as he promised funding for the National Careers Service as part of his post-pandemic ‘Plan for Jobs’. Increasingly in the UK and around the world, we are seeing policymakers recognise that career guidance is a critical part of an education and employment system. Of course, funding doesn’t always follow rhetoric, but there is a growing recognition that good career guidance can make a difference.

The evidence also tells us quite a bit about what ‘good career guidance’ actually is, and most of these lessons also apply to how employability works. I summarise the evidence as follows.

Focus on the individual. To have credibility, career guidance has to serve the interest of the individuals and groups that it is working with. It needs to take a long-term view around the life development of the individual, rather than just focus on the next step. If it is seen as pushing people into outcomes that are only in the interest of the government, the employer or the learning organisation will lose credibility. At the heart of this is listening carefully to what individuals want and need, attending to their other needs, for example recognising that for many clients their housing needs might need to be solved before they can focus on finding work. This also demands we understand the diversity of clients and so avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach.

Support learning and progression. Career guidance is primarily a learning activity through which individuals learn about themselves and the world around them and come to a decision about where they want to fit into the world. To support this career guidance professionals need to be able to articulate what career management skills they are trying to develop and engage their clients in this development. They also need to recognise that this learning can be achieved in a wide variety of ways. One-to-one counselling can be a powerful approach, but so too can work in groups, experiential learning (often involving employers and work experience), online learning, mentoring, peer support and so on. Indeed, the evidence suggests that career guidance is often most effective when multiple approaches are combined in a thoughtful and progressive way.

Ensure quality. Finally, it is important that we attend to the quality of what is done. At the heart of this are qualified professionals (typically trained to degree or postgraduate level), making use of up-to-date and reliable information and resources. There is also value in a variety of forms of quality assurance of practice including peer observation and feedback, external reviews and measurement of outcomes.

Referral and co-working

The summary of the evidence above sets out some of what we know about effective career guidance. Most of it will be relevant to employability professionals, although as employability professionals there is typically more pressure on you to hit targets established by funders which can distract from the focus on the individual. There is also typically less focus on professional qualifications and training.

Given this, it is important to recognise that career guidance professionals, in the National Careers Service or elsewhere, may have the opportunity to work with the clients that you work with in different ways. This is why it is important to reach out to careers professionals and discuss appropriate approaches to cross-referral. Where your clients have more complex need or where their career aspirations are more specialised, referral to a careers professional is likely to be the best option.

In general people’s lives are rarely neatly divided into the boxes identified through government funding arrangements. Employment issues fade into learning and career issues, which in turn are tangled up with benefits, housing and relationships. The most effective approaches require interprofessional working and regular referral.

Progression into career guidance

As you work with career guidance professionals and see the links between their work and yours, it is likely you’ll see considerable overlap between these two worlds. Increasingly, I think we’ll see employability professionals and career guidance professionals become part of the same profession. If this is the case we can view career guidance as a potential progression route for employability professionals.

If you enjoy working with people, helping them to figure out their life, work and employment, you might want to engage in further training to become fully qualified as a career guidance professional. The Career Development Institute website has a lot of information about how you can do this through apprenticeship, work-based routes or university degrees.

The idea of career guidance as progression may not make immediate sense when you look at the salaries of careers professionals in the National Careers Service. In many cases these jobs will be at a similar salary level to the salaries in the employability sector. But, career guidance is a much bigger world, beyond work with unemployed and low-skilled clients in the National Careers Service, there are also careers professionals working in schools, colleges, universities, businesses, outplacement companies and private practice. Many of these roles command higher salaries and open up more opportunities for progression.

The need for a bigger tent

If we accept that employability professionals and career guidance professionals are part of the same broader profession then this has implications for how we organise ourselves. The most effective professions are able to organise people in a variety of roles, working in a variety of different organisational contexts. By doing this and recognising the value that exists across the profession they are better able to share learning and represent their professional interests to employers, government and the general public.

At the moment we are fragmented, focused inwards on our own immediate problems and concerns. In the long run I would like to see us build a much bigger tent of careers and employability professionals. Such an endeavour would see professional associations coming together, a clearer ladder of qualifications and progression and increasing solidarity between professionals working in different contexts. In such a circumstance the profession would have a much greater capability to articulate the importance of the work that it does, and to argue for greater recognition for the professionals doing that work.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…

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