Most adults have not received any careers advice since leaving school and many of the most disadvantaged have never been given help in finding work, says a survey.
The little advice that had been received was generally ineffective, with nearly half of workers saying they had ended up in a completely different career from the one advised, and a further third saying they had received no advice at all or advice they could remember.
Poor careers advice has put an extra burden on the further education sector because one in five workers reported having to retrain in later life.
More than 500 workers at 100 different companies were polled by City and Guilds. The results highlighted the need for the Government's new Adult Advancement and Careers Service to overturn decades of patchy advice, said Andrew Sich, the awarding body's head of corporate affairs.
"It's fundamental to have a good adult careers service if you're not going to put people on the wrong path. There have been too many bad decisions made as a result of poor advice and guidance," he said.
"Most people would agree, if you rolled the clock back 20 years or so, we would have a better system. It's been very patchy since then."
According to City and Guilds, the new careers service needs to help people at all stages of their careers. It also needs to be genuinely impartial and universal, rather than perceived as being just for those who are out of work.
The survey found 52 per cent of those polled had not had any careers advice since leaving school, a figure that was even higher for workers in junior management or professional posts.
About one in five said they had never had any helpful careers advice. Among those with no qualifications, the proportion rose to 47 per cent, which is particularly concerning since this is the group that might be most in need of help.
Job centres were the preferred source of careers advice for more than a quarter of the workers who were polled. But the likelihood of using it dropped off sharply among those in senior or professional jobs.
Fewer than one in 10 would return to their college for advice, with the internet the second most popular source of information.
Many people's decisions had been unaffected by professional advice, with 46 per cent saying they were given no recommendations or could not remember them.
Some of the most popular suggestions, given to around one in 20 people, were: a career in catering for those with qualifications up to GCSE level; retail or nursing for those with A-levels; and education for those with degrees.
Some said they were given suggestions for specific and interesting jobs, ranging from aircraft technicians to forensic scientists.
But others said the advice was "a complete waste of time", that the "careers adviser had no time for me" or "I was deemed a waste of space. I had no advice at all."
Shaken not stirred? Vodka or gin-based? Answers to these cocktail conundrums are provided in the UK's first bartending qualification.
The 60-hour course at City College Plymouth shows students how to make 20 different cocktails and pour accurately by eye. The college is signing up would-be drinks maestros for the second round of the Pounds 350 course, which starts in February.
The college developed the City and Guilds level two course in bartending after being approached by local drinks manufacturer Plymouth Gin, which provides facilities and some teaching on the course. Bars and hotels also said there was a need for a professional qualification for bar staff.
Rosie Bates, the college's head of academy for hospitality, said: "They felt it was a step towards professionalising bartending. There are NVQs in food and drink but not in this area, which requires a lot of skill."
Students sit an exam on recipes, cocktail-making techniques and health and safety, as well as making drinks for their assessors and recommending drinks to suit their tastes.