Careers change

But can the new approach to advice services match young people's skills to the needs of the modern workplace?

Julia Belgutay

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It made for depressing reading: over four-fifths of young people applying for apprenticeships were unemployable, motoring group Arnold Clark told the Scottish Parliament's finance committee - a message that was relayed on to the front pages of newspapers across the country last month.

A staggering 1,850 of the 2,280 young people who applied for an apprenticeship with the company's training arm, GTG Training, were "not employable at all", the company said. There was a "culture of wholly unrealistic expectactions", compounded by young people's "inability to make a decision based on anything other than `I want'".

While many, including college leaders and politicians, expressed outrage at the company's assessment, others, including millionaire entrepreneur Jim McColl, were quick to jump on the bandwagon. Around one in five of all Scottish youngsters was failed by the education system and not prepared for work, he said, adding that many "switched off" from mainstream schooling aged 14.

The claims are the latest in a long line of assessments by employers and industry representatives that those leaving Scotland's schools, colleges, and sometimes universities are simply not well enough prepared to enter the workplace. Some of this is attributable to a lack of essential skills - and many incentives are put in place by governments and charities to solve this problem.

For the government, targeted interventions are an essential part of the solution to youth unemployment.

Next week Skills Development Scotland, the government agency which incorporated Careers Scotland when it was formed in 2008, will announce a change in direction in the way it provides support to young people aiming to enter the workplace. This is expected to involve an even greater focus, both at school and college, on those at greatest risk of not finding work.

"As the new academic year approaches, SDS is reviewing its services to ensure they meet the changing demands and needs of Scotland's young people," a spokesman for SDS said.

"We are increasing our reach and intensity of support," he continued, adding that this would mean more careers advisers in schools and more interventions.

SDS's annual report shows that in 2010-11, the agency supported 52,048 school pupils at risk of unemployment on leaving school.

"These were young people identified by schools and other agencies as likely to benefit from our support in making a successful transition - 78.8 per cent of those in this group achieved positive destinations," it added.

But some would argue that young people simply do not get good enough advice on the career options available to them and the qualifications and skills required to gain jobs in the industries they aspire to.

"It is widely acknowledged that most careers advice is not currently fit for purpose, and too often it is irrelevant," said Lauren Paterson, policy executive at CBI Scotland. "At its best, it can inspire young people to make the right choices for their futures, but at its worst it builds up young people's expectations beyond what is immediately achievable or gives them no real guidance."

Young people's first brush with careers advice is likely to occur around the time they make their subject choices in S2. Most schools also offer work experience for their students later on in their school career.

Thereafter, a number of schools offer a range of projects to introduce pupils to a variety of industries; they also allow for regular meetings with both guidance staff and external agencies.

"Usually from about S2 on, guidance and pastoral care staff, along with dedicated careers advisers, take young folk through a range of programmes right through until they make final leaving choices - whether to higher or further education or apprenticeships," said Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland.

But the picture is not the same everywhere. In some cases, pupils are offered no more than annual meetings with advisers, unless they are referred for additional support from Skills Development Scotland, targeting those at greatest risk of leaving school with no prospect of training or employment. As school budget cuts bite, guidance staff are finding themselves increasingly stretched, making it more difficult for them to offer appropriate support to every pupil.

Young people are feeling the impact of this. A joint report by the Financial Skills Partnership and Careers Academies UK, published this week, concluded that 17- and 18-year-olds' awareness of career opportunities was poor, leaving them ill-informed to navigate through a particularly turbulent jobs market.

A UK-wide survey by City and Guilds of 15- to 19-year-olds and their parents, published in September last year, showed that a quarter of young people claimed not to have had any information and advice about their choice of career or qualifications.

Of those who said they did receive advice, 68 per cent got it from their parents, while 67 per cent received it from careers advisers in school. Other teachers and tutors were cited by 60 per cent as sources of advice, while only 19 per cent said they received guidance from agencies like SDS.

A third said the most useful advice had come from their parents, while a quarter felt teachers' and tutors' advice had been most helpful. Only 21 per cent of those young respondents said they had been given the best information by careers advisers at school.

Industry representatives have long argued that school-based careers advisers are often unable to provide relevant, up-to-date advice on emerging industries outside the traditional professions like law and medicine.

Polly Purvis, executive director for ScotlandIS, the trade body for the digital technology industries, said the IT industry was a key driver of growth and "one of the hidden jewels in the Scottish economy".

"However, the sector is facing significant skills shortage as pupils and students appear to be ignoring this sector. We need to update careers advisers so that they look more closely at careers in the IT industry rather than traditional professions.

"It's difficult to be up to date in a fast-moving industry like technology, and unsurprisingly we come across lots of out-of-date perceptions when it comes to careers advice on opportunities in the technology sector," she said.

To try and remedy this problem, ScotlandIS was working in partnership with SDS and eSkills UK to ensure the right information is available to pupils and students, she said.

In its UK report Action for Jobs, How to get the UK Working, the CBI recommended last October that "as part of wider engagement, businesses and schools work together to give teachers a better understanding of work through exchange schemes".

"Spending time in business as part of continuing professional development programmes will help build teachers' knowledge and understanding of the world of work," the report states.

With the support of "business ambassadors", teachers could "buddy" a local company to stay in touch with developments in a sector and share their learning - as well as advice on skills and competencies - back in their schools, it concludes.

But for many, the biggest game-changer to careers advice and the expectations of what it should and can achieve for young people has been the economic downturn.

It diminished the number of jobs available to young people, especially those leaving school with few or no qualifications, and has led to record levels of youth unemployment.

Pressure from the government to intervene early where youngsters seem at risk of ending up "not in education, employment or training" means SDS careers advisers - who traditionally added significantly to the advice and information provided within school - have to focus on this group - at the expense of other pupils, some argue.

And the issue is not limited to young people's time in school education. Many school-leavers now struggle to secure places on their first choice of college course, meaning they require more targeted support during their FE studies - and with limited jobs available to graduates, careers advice and help has become more crucial than ever.

But massive cuts to college budgets have seen careers advice staff stretched to their limits, and Skills Development Scotland, which provides the majority of careers guidance at many institutions, has also seen its resources strained.

A Freedom of Information request placed by TESS revealed that students at most Scottish colleges have access to an SDS careers adviser for less than half the week.

City of Glasgow College, the country's biggest FE institution with 26,735 students, is supported by approximately 21 hours, (0.6 FTE) of SDS careers advice per week, while John Wheatley College, with the largest proportion of students from the most deprived backgrounds, is allocated 0.3 FTE of a careers adviser post - 10.5 hours - for more than 8,000 students. The average allocation of a careers adviser across the college sector is 0.26 FTE for 2012-13.

The economic crisis has also caused a change in the way many people's careers are structured - away from lifelong careers in the same sector, and even the same companies, to roles that are constantly changing.

This makes it more difficult for careers advisers to offer adequate advice and for schools, colleges and universities to prepare young people for the jobs market.

Many institutions have therefore moved towards careers education - a much broader area which brings in enterprise education, as well as other relevant areas of the curriculum.

Experts agree that Curriculum for Excellence could support this development. "I think a lot of the skills we are trying to encourage through CfE would actually help young people around this, because it is about decision-making, being able to see what is out there, to look at that against your own capacities and make good choices," said education consultant David Cameron.

There should also be more of a focus on informing children and young people about the choices available to them and raising their aspiration, rather than pushing them towards a specific career early on. Some are therefore recommending a revision of the link between subject choices and careers advice.

With face-to-face advice in short supply, SDS's My World of Work website is seen by many as a way to make good use of young people's ability to harness online resources to ensure that they have access to extensive material on careers and industries. Since its launch in August 2011, it has gained 80,000 users.

"The site is a good starting point, but face-to- face guidance is what pupils really need to reach their potential," said Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland.

"Pupils, particularly those from more deprived communities, must be given information that helps them move into education, training or employment, and get advice that allows them to succeed in whichever path they choose."

But it was important that student support staff numbers were not reduced as part of cost-cutting measures at colleges, he warned.


Many students start college with little idea of which career they want to follow, a college guidance adviser from central Scotland told TESS.

Young school-leavers in particular often choose courses without taking future job prospects into consideration. She attributes this, in part, to a lack of targeted support in school.

"By the time they come to college, they should be career-savvier," she says. "People apply for courses when they are at school, and they don't know what they want to do. They apply for anything." This often leads to students changing courses after a year, or leaving college altogether.

With limited time to spend on campus and a focus on reducing youth unemployment, college-based careers advisers from Skills Development Scotland increasingly give most of their time to those at high risk of ending up without education, employment or training. "There is too much time spent on problem kids," the adviser, who asked not to be identified, said.

This meant many students never actually got to see a careers adviser routinely, unless they were referred to the service by other staff or sought help directly.

The face-to-face advice many students need revolves around finding out what their passions are and what they want to achieve, she said.

But with resources diminishing, advisers were increasingly told by their superiors to "point them towards My World of Work (Skills Development Scotland's careers portal)" and let them seek the guidance online.


25% - Proportion of young people in the UK who claimed not to have had any information and advice about their choice of career or qualifications.

67% - The proportion who got their information from careers advisers in school (out of those who said they received any information).

33% - The proportion of young people who said parental advice had been the most helpful.

25% - The proportion who felt teachers' and tutors' advice had been the best.

21% - The proportion who said they had been given the best information and advice by careers advisers at school.

(Source: City and Guilds Centre for Skills Development, New Directions, young people's and parents' views on vocational education and careers guidance, September 2011.)

52,048 - The number of school pupils at risk of unemployment on leaving school who were supported by SDS in 2010-11.

78.8% - Proportion of those achieving a `positive destination'.

(Source: Skills Development Scotland annual report 2010-11)


Five years ago, Smithycroft Secondary in the east end of Glasgow won the education prize at the Careers Scotland Excellence Awards for achieving a 0 per cent unemployment rate among its school-leavers.

Since then, the school has done anything but rest on its laurels. Aware of the difficult economic times its pupils will face once they leave school, it is broadening out its activities beyond the traditional remit of careers advice into careers education.

The school has a dedicated principal teacher for "world of work", Helen McBride, who not only organises opportunities for the pupils, but also works with a Skills Development Scotland staff member who is in the school two days a week. They target pupils who are at risk of not achieving a positive destination, and organise events based around careers advice and guidance.

"We still do some of the traditional things like work experience, but there is more emphasis on making sure our young people do work experience they are interested in and that all our pupils go on work experience in fourth year," says headteacher Jean Miller.

By S4, all pupils will have had an opportunity to meet their pastoral care teacher to talk about their career aspirations.

"You don't just have your one meeting a year and that is you done. There can be follow-ups as well to try and meet the aspirations for our young people as much as possible," Mrs Miller explains. How many meetings pupils have depends on their personal circumstances.

"What is really crucial to my job is to know the pupils, know what they are studying, what they are aiming for, what they are wanting to do," Mrs McBride told TESS. Speaking to parents and getting them involved was also essential, she said.

From next session, the school will hold a raising aspirations event, targeting S2. A lot of the pupils don't know enough about what is on offer in terms of careers, Mrs Miller said.

A variety of projects for older pupils already take place. One recently introduced in cooperation with the John Lewis Partnership offered six pupils a more intensive work experience opportunity of three blocks of one week, and support from mentors.

"Where we think there is an opportunity that could benefit our pupils, we like to take that opportunity up," the headteacher said.

And their success proves them right: of the school's127 leavers last year, 124 went into a positive destination. The other three, the headteacher said, chose not to go into employment.

In numbers

21 - The number of hours per week students at City of Glasgow College have access to a Skills Development Scotland careers adviser.

10.5 - The number of hours per week allocated to John Wheatley College by a full-time member of SDS careers advice staff.

(Source: TESS FoI request to SDS).

Careers boost for the jobless. Will it work?

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Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay is head of FE at Tes

Find me on Twitter @JBelgutay

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