Guest post: Should Job Centres provide career guidance?

In the light of the Labour Party’s promise to align Jobcentre Plus and the National Careers Service in England, Professor Pete Robertson offers some useful reflections on the opportunities , and pitfalls, that such a move might offer.

One of the promises in the Labour Party manifesto for the Westminster election is to kickstart economic growth by reshaping Job Centre Plus services and to incorporate career guidance services within them. This is essentially a good idea, but of course the devil is in the detail, and the way in which it is implemented will determine whether it will succeed. To understand this, it is necessary to understand the relationship between Job Centres and career guidance services, and how it has evolved.

Two rivers from the same spring

Job Centre Plus is the current branding for the UK’s public employment service (PES), provided by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). This social innovation was initiated around 1910, and known then as the ‘Labour Exchange’. This was essentially a state-run employment agency, and was a response to rapid industrialisation and urbanisation. By the 1920s it became apparent that young people using the service were not able to cope with the practicalities of dealing with employers. They were vulnerable to exploitation and needed extra support. This led initially to separate desks within the Labour Exchange to deal with them, and subsequently to separate offices. Thus was born the ‘Juvenile Employment Service’. And with this parting of the ways, two radically different cultures of supporting people into work gradually emerged. By the 1970s, the young person’s service had mutated into something that we would recognise as a modern ‘Careers Service’.

How did they become so different? Job Centre services, and their precursors, were part of the Civil Service and remained so. They remained a bureaucracy to connect adult job seekers with job vacancies, and this service never professionalised. Rather it became progressively more entangled with the welfare benefits system and its regime of carrots and sticks. The problematic nature of a focus on job seeker surveillance rather than support has been surfaced by the excellent work of the Commission on the Future of Employment Support

In contrast, careers services have occupied a more complex and unstable policy environment. They were deeply integrated into educational institutions. They imported ideas from psychology and sociology. They professionalised, with university-based training, a professional identity and a code of ethics. Whilst career services can and do work with adults, in the UK they have been tasked primarily with dealing with young people and education leavers.

A cultural gulf

The cultural gulf between career services and Job Centres is considerable. DWP services have been focused on ‘labour activation’. They seek to answer the question ‘how can we get people into a job so that that they will claim less benefits, pay more tax, reduce labour shortages, and generate wealth?’. Monitoring job seeking activity is an important element. Participation in the service may be mandatory on the threat of withholding welfare benefits.

Career services seek to answer different questions, such as:  ‘How can we help this individual  person to engage with work and learning opportunities in a way that enriches their life and is sustainable over time?’. Crucially, participation in these services is by consent, and without coercion. Services involve elements of diagnostic assessment, counselling, education, information on work and learning opportunities, and support to take action. This may be delivered individually, in groups, or online, and may involve a package of activities.

Have we been here before?

Embedding career guidance services into Job Centres is not a new idea.  It has been tried before: ‘Occupational Guidance Units’ in the 1970s were one example. But these initiatives have tended to be small scale and not sustained. The reason for that is lack of consistent funding to support guidance for adults. Career service funding in the UK tends to strongly prioritise education leavers and the prevention of youth unemployment. Career guidance in public employment services has also been tried in several European countries. This experience clearly demonstrates that there can be tensions between the career adviser role and bureaucratic objectives of the PES agency.

The Labour Party are proposing to bring career guidance into Job Centre Plus services by integrating them with the National Careers Service. This is funded by the UK Government but operates only in England. It provides online/remote services as well as some support for specific targeted groups. It is well placed to respond quickly. However, it has some key limitations – its staff are trained to technician level rather than professional level, and its funding models force a lot of its activity into monitoring outcomes rather than helping. This means it may not be able to fully realise the benefits of career guidance in the Job Centre context.

As Labour’s manifesto acknowledges, things are different outside of England. Scotland’s national career service, Skills Development Scotland, has experimented with locating advisers in Job Centres. The Careers Service Northern Ireland has tended to be less distant from the Job Centre function by virtue of being civil servants in the same government department.

Another dimension

As I have argued elsewhere, Job Centres are an ideal location for delivering public health support.  This is because they have good reach into the subset of the working population that is most at risk from physical and mental health conditions. A reimagined supportive Job Centre might provide a platform not just for career guidance, but also for communicating basic health information, and perhaps financial advice too. This combination might be particularly helpful to support older workers to be active, rather than withdraw from the workforce.

Will it work?

Embedding career guidance within the UK’s public employment service could be a very positive step forward. It might represent a radical transformation of our approach to employment support. But it could fail without these key elements:

  • Adequate levels of training and pay to support a professional workforce.
  • A sustainable model for funding, that encourages helping rather than monitoring.
  • A substantial cultural shift in Job Centres, with fully trained career guidance professionals involved in service design.

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