Separation without deterioration

An independent careers office in Grampian has been good for business - everyone's. Judy Mackie reports

Grampian Careers prides itself on delivering "action today - employment tomorrow." In the relatively prosperous north-east of Scotland - at its heart lies Europe's oil capital, Aberdeen - it is a slogan with which it can live more easily than most (unemployment in the area is around 3 per cent).

Three years ago Christina Allon, the company's chief executive, was not so sure. But her initial fears over the separation of the careers service from the education authority, coupled with Scottish Office requirements to provide forecasts for the service, have proved unfounded.

"We were worried that separation would detract from our excellent relationship with education," said Mrs Allon, "but that has not happened and we enjoy good working partnerships with the education authorities of Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire and Moray Councils." Her chairman, Eric Hendrie, was education chairman in the former Grampian Regional Council.

"Another concern was that forecasting would mean our work would be driven by the need to meet service-delivery targets which may not relate to market demand. In practice, I am pleased to say that our driving force remains very much the response to client need. If actual service-delivery results do differ from those forecast, we can always provide a very good reason."

Joseph Leiper, headteacher at Aberdeen's Old Machar Academy, believes that "since becoming a company in its own right, Grampian Careers is providing a much more focused service to the school. It is far more client-oriented in the way you would expect a business to treat its customers, regularly asking how we find the service and how it can be improved."

With a new city centre shop, three offices in Aberdeenshire and Moray and a fresh corporate identity, Grampian Careers has embarked on an campaign to spread the work about its services. Most people are aware that it provides careers guidance and information for young people in schools and colleges. Not so well known are the job-search and employer services. Job-search is a computerised system which highlights job vacancies and training places. Last year employers notified over 1,200 job vacancies to Grampian careers offices; 32 per cent of school leavers went directly into jobs compared with the Scottish average of 23 per cent.

The employer services not only find suitable candidates for specific job vacancies but also provide information on such issues as employment legislation affecting young people, financial assistance for training, and local workforce statistics. Careers officers visited 1,055 employers' premises last year. The third unsung careers activity is the information and support for parents bewildered by the choices that face their youngsters.

Innovative moves include the development of a Scottish version of the Kudos on-line careers advice and information system, which Grampian Careers is now marketing throughout Scotland. The introduction of a freephone number makes access easier and more economical for those living at a distance from careers offices: more than 10,000 calls were made during 1996-7, a marked increase on the previous year's 2,500.

Grampian has also just appointed an adult guidance co-ordinator who, in partnership with a range of organisations such as community education groups, local authorities, libraries, colleges and universities, is assessing the requirements of the adult careers market with the aim of setting up a networked support service next year. The company's objective is an "all-age" service to support lifelong learning.

As with all careers companies, quality assurance is never far from the list of priorities. Grampian Careers is to undergo the comprehensive Scottish Quality Management System (SQMS) audit later this month, and the company has achieved the Investors in People accolade.

Feedback from clients is another essential quality tool. A survey of employers at the end of last year produced a 90 per cent quality rating from those who had used the Grampian careers service - rising to 96 per cent for staff knowledge of the world of work and of education, and 97 per cent for speed of response.

Mike Davidson of Northern Timber Products in Aberdeen commended the service for providing him with a new store-person within a few days. "We were looking for someone who was not particularly well-qualified and Grampian Careers provided us with a range of suitable candidates within a very short space of time. I was impressed that one of their staff made a follow-up visit after we'd made the appointment and took the trouble to ask for feedback."

Hewden Stuart, a European plant hire company is also complimentary. Maureen Gormley, who administers the firm's training and apprenticeship scheme, says: "In recruiting throughout the UK, we have used a number of careers service providers and I have to say Grampian Careers is the best. Not only did the offices in Aberdeen and Elgin provide me with a very high standard of applicant in every case, but they also advised me on local issues such as whether people are happy to commute - preferences which tend to differ from area to area. "

Grampian is now examining the Higher Still reforms of post-16 education in Scotland, scheduled for 1999. This ambitious attempt to combine academic and vocational education in a single school and college framework will put careers guidance at the cutting edge. "We have already laid the groundwork for our Higher Still strategy and we have two main objectives," Mrs Allon says. "These are to inform and advise employers on Higher Still and its implications for them, and to work closely with guidance staff in schools and colleges to ensure young people understand the new choices which lie ahead."

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