Despite Britain's skills shortage, young people are getting poor advice about work-based learning, say employers.
Bosses point the finger at Connexions, the Government's one-stop information and guidance shop for 13 to 19-year-olds. "The system is failing the vast majority of young people whose needs are not being met and who are on inappropriate courses," says the Confederation of British Industry.
Targeting of resources is preventing some young people from getting important information, the employers' organisation believes.
In its response to the National Skills Strategy, the CBI has called on the Government to gauge whether the present system, including the Connexions, is delivering the guidance young people need.
The confederation points to seemingly damning verdicts on Connexions advice: 48 of 49 16-19 area inspections found failings in guidance for young people about post-16 options.
But Connexions chief executive, Anne Weinstock, says the situation is "much more complex than people suppose". Ofsted's first report on Connexions in 2002 was done when services had only been running for between three and 12 months. "What they're finding now is a very different set of experiences.
Youngsters are getting very effective and impartial advice."
She also says that Connexions has been a scapegoat for the failure of clients who have multiple problems, and find it difficult to stay on course. "Poor careers advice becomes the Aunt Sally for falling off track," said Ms Weinstock. "But it's looking at it as a whole picture."
In both the initial report on Connexions and recent area reports, Ofsted did find much to praise. Inspectors praised a "cadre of personal advisers who are enthusiastic, committed to the aims of Connexions ... (with) a wide range of expertise". Advisers' "independence and impartiality" was welcomed by young people.
But poor advice for 16 to 19-year-olds about work-based learning in particular has been a persistent theme. Advice about this seems markedly worse than for other learning such as college courses.
Connexions shares responsibility for careers guidance with schools. Since 1998, the Government has required careers services to focus on young people in danger of social or economic exclusion. Schools on the other hand have a duty to equip all pupils with skills and knowledge to plan for their own future.
The focus on the most needy was "positive and well-intentioned," says Graham Hoyle, chief executive of the Association of Learning Providers, but has had unintended results: often it means a few get help, while the majority are neglected. "Some people are getting specialist help at the expense of universalism," he says.
The new focus on the needy was often resented or misunderstood by pupils and schools. A study for the Department for Education and Skills by the National Foundation for Educational Research in 2001 revealed mainstream pupils resented the loss of their automatic right to a careers interview.
For many, said the NFER, careers advice became stigmatised as something for "thickies" and "dropouts". School staff sometimes believed they were being asked to do extra work to improve the profits of the newly privatised careers service.
Schools also may not have expertise in careers guidance: the NFER study suggested only a third of the schools surveyed had the capacity to pick up the work previously done by the careers service.
Sylvia Thomson, president of the National Association of Careers and Guidance Teachers, has sympathy with schools. "A lot of people are unclear about careers guidance. Statutory provision has improved since the 1980s, but schools' capacity has not because they've had so many pressures to deliver the national curriculum," she says. "Pressures on schools from parents and league tables mean schools put more effort into academic success. There's not enough time for good careers guidance."
This view was echoed in research fro the Connexions Service in 2002. "The effectiveness of careers sessions is often undermined by short tutor periods, carousel arrangements, inadequate differentiation and a lack of focus on learning outcomes," says the report.
And careers lessons are often given by form tutors with no training in careers, a situation the NACTG is lobbying to remedy.