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Careering into the high street with priceless guidance for adults

With its snappy interior design and catchy logo, the "Next Step Shop" in Acton High Street, west London, looks like any other commercial outlet. But its appearance is deceptive because the service offered to clients at this flagship store is simultaneously free of charge and priceless.

Though it could easily be mistaken as an extension of its neighbouring electricity board shop at first glance, it is, in fact, a careers guidance centre for adults, with financial backing from the European Social Fund and the West London Training and Enterprise Council.

It was set up for Pounds 130,000, has an annual running cost of Pounds 130,000 which mostly covers staff salaries, and aims to help 5,000 people revise and enhance their career paths this year.

Since its launch last term, demand for the service has been high. Already 2,500 people have crossed its doorstep and its counsellors have dealt with countless telephone queries from people looking to upgrade skills, retrain, go into higher education, make a career change or return to work.

Though careers guidance is given priority by FE colleges, and job centres can offer advice and some training to adults, Mark Plevin, Next Step Shop manager, says the high street store fills a gap identified through TEC research.

He believes some adults lack the confidence to go into higher education colleges for careers advice if they have no personal experience of further education. And although the shop's relationships with local job centres are convivial, its role differs because its work is not linked to benefit eligibility.

"We are open to all comers here - our visibility is higher just because of our high street presence - and our staff can offer truly independent advice.

"Our service is about asking people where they see themselves going for the rest of their working lives and providing opportunities which fit in with their plan."

Despite working closely with local colleges and job centres, shop staff focus on providing open access to adult guidance throughout the West London TEC area of Hounslow, Ealing, Hillingdon and Richmond.

Both unemployed and employed adults are welcomed into the shop where they are helped to make informed choices after delving into its Aladdin's cave of resources.

They can tap into its ECCTIS 2000 database of more than 1,000 college and university courses, scour individual prospectuses, prepare CVs on one of three computers for public use, scour leaflets on job-seeking strategies, master selection tests, or watch videos on self presentation and interview techniques.

Its advisers also offer guidance on national vocational qualifications and how to obtain them through accreditation of prior learning.

Future development plans include offering aptitude and personality testing, recruitment services and multi-media learning resources.

The first hurdle for many clients is low self-confidence. "Often it is women who, after raising a family, want information on going to college and feel they have nothing to offer," says Mark Plevin.

"Our counsellors help them break down their experience and identify competencies which are extremely demanding - for example, managing a family and time management. When we link this in with previous work experience, then we can make them see that they have something of value to offer to an employer. "

Judith Parsons, executive director of education and training at the West London TEC, says the Acton shop is the first of a planned four.

She says the centre has already secured its first contract for outplacement in partnership with Richmond upon Thames tertiary college, and there are plans for another collegeTEC partnership to help develop training provision for people with special needs in the boroughs.

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