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Sort your life out - get some careers advice

When it comes to choosing a career, it's vital to have good advice. Laurence Alster puts some CD-Roms and websites through their paces

There was a time when choosing a career was a straightforward, if restricted business. Boys wanted to be engine drivers, girls wanted to be nurses. At school, the careers teacher seldom helped. Careers counsellors, on the other hand, often did. Now we have computer programs. And the best leave no possibility unexamined.

Advice starts early. Aimed at 7- to 11-year-olds, Paws in Jobland is a juniorversion of the more adult programs: a diagnostic section where answering simple questions ("I dodon't like mathsEnglish") results in a preference profile, a job list and a brief description of over 100 jobs set in a jolly place called Jobland which users are guided around by a happy hound called Paws. It's colourful, enthusiastic and has excellent photocopiable worksheets.

Intended for Year 10 pupils onwards, Odyssey is of more mixed quality. Work categories are well chosen (work is "Practical", "Enterprising", "Social" etc) and there is good information on specific jobs, but the language can be difficult. Under "Teacher", for example, "Income in the independent sector is often comparable to the state sector" won't mean much to most youngsters.

Also thoughtless with language is Career Compass. After entering exam results anticipated in year 11, users answer 120 questions in the diagnostic section. This leads to six bars shaded to show degrees of preference for types of work. Clicking any bar brings the appropriate jobs plus descriptions.

More difficult are the job outlines. "Many people are freelance," it says on "Journalism, publicity and information", without saying what a freelance is or does. A trade union official, we are told, "represents the interests of union members and aims to improve pay and working conditions". Taken entirely for granted is what a trade union actually is.

By contrast, Careers glosses many unfamiliar terms in its attractively upbeat look at work and education after Year 11. Some good audio and video clips take users through subjects like staying at school, life in a further education college, interview techniques and CVs, while a useful section reviews such options as starting a business and working abroad. True, this doesn't look at specific areas of work, but after doing an 84-question diagnostic section, users will be ready enough to tackle one that does.

In which case they might go to CID 2000 (Careers Information Database) which, with its hundreds of job titles, straightforward prose, dozens of slideshows and videoclips is as varied as it is informative. The diagnostic section is mercifully brief and, should they need it, a web address links users with extra information. It's easy to see why this businesslike, but friendly program, is a favourite.

Equally unfussy is Careers Voyager 2000, which eschews any complex diagnostic process for a list of 20 skills from which users are invited to tick four, before narrowing these down to three. This don, a list of jobs that match these skills appears.

As well as showing details of a range of jobs (around 500) and employers, the program outlines the qualities needed for careers. Training and sponsorship opportunities are given, a feature of a large number of jobs being a videoclip that exalts National Traineeship and Modern Apprenticeships. Especially instructive is the information on job prospects (demand for jobs and skills, economic trends etc) for 27 occupational areas. This is a good program, praiseworthy except for lettering that occasionally gets lost against a bright background and a Construction and Industry Training Board videoclip that suggests roofing and tiling is almost as exciting as being a UN negotiator.

Once one of the best on CD-Rom, Which University is now available only on the web. Alas, the videoclips that made the CD-Rom so entertaining have been dropped, though the search system remains. Six criteria enable users to trawl for suitable universities and colleges and there is good advice on how and when to apply, the intricacies of funding and the use of education fairs.

In addition, Which University is electronically linked to ECCTIS 2000, the mammoth database that holds information on over 100,000 courses and advises higher education hopefuls on money, careers and clearing. Available on CD-Rom as UK Course Discover, this immensely thorough and eminently navigable program just about pips the online assistance offered by UCAS, the university admission service for quality. Both ECCTIS and UCAS provide Web access to university and college prospectuses.

Most of which, in truth, are a bit dry and sincere. Go instead to Push Online, the self-proclaimed "leading independent guide to UK universities". If the tone tries too hard to be waggish, the advice is good: "Remember that glossy websites, like glossy prospectuses, are basically sales documents and should be treated as such." The fact that this website exists as much as anything to publicise the book of the Push Guide shouldn't put anyone off: this is where you're most likely to get at the grime beneath the gloss.

Paws In Jobland CD-Rom for PC from CASCAID.

Price:pound;49.99 Tel: 01509 283390 Odyssey Price: pound;110 (single-user), pamp;p pound;3.

Career Compass Price: pound;95 plus VAT (single-user) Both CD-Rom for PC from JIIG-CAL Progressions Tel: 01483 413200 Careers CD-Rom for PC from Granada Learning.

Price: pound;49 (+ VAT), pamp;p pound;3.50 Tel: 0161 8272927 CID 2000 (Careers Information Database) CD-Rom for PC from Careersoft.

Price: pound;140 (site or network licence) plus VAT, pamp;p pound;4 Tel: 01422 330450 Careers Voyager 2000 CD-Rom for PC and Mac Free from Hobsons, Bateman St, Cambridge CB2 1LZ Tel: 0171 5493457 Which University Online UK Course Discover CD-Rom for PC from ECCTIS 2000.

Price: pound;235 plus VAT (single-user), Tel: 01242 252627 UCAS Push Online

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