Thousands of pupils are likely to miss out on crucial face-to-face meetings with a Skills Development Scotland careers adviser, as the agency implements a system which sees pupils "colour-coded" and categorised according to perceived need.
The new schools service offered by SDS to secondary pupils categorises them as "green", "amber" or "red".
Those considered to have good training or job prospects, or seen as on track to go to college or university - estimated at around 100,000 - are classed as green.
Amber pupils - around 35,000 - are those with poor attendance or low attainment, or who come from difficult backgrounds.
Pupils already disengaged from education, involved with social work or in criminality, or who have learning support or health needs - 200-400 - are put into the red category. They are seen as unable to engage with careers services.
With SDS urged to focus its activity on those pupils at risk of unemployment, only "amber" pupils are guaranteed to have face-to-face meetings with a careers adviser - probably six to eight meetings per term.
"Red" pupils are diverted to organisations, such as the Prince's Trust, which offer alternative provision.
"Green" pupils are expected to use the online advice offered by SDS's My World of Work (MWOW) website, then phone or engage in web chat with its call centre. Only after following these steps can they ask for an appointment with a careers adviser, one senior careers adviser told TESS.
"In September, we would normally have seen thousands of academic pupils; now we are not doing that. Has anybody checked that they have made well- informed choices?" the adviser said.
As all pupils are now encouraged to sign up to MWOW as part of a once-a- year, 30-minute group careers talk, the registration statistics would make it look a success, he said. The adverse effects of the system would only become clear as university and college drop-out rates increased further down the line.
"The information which is now emerging is a great cause for concern," said Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council. Parents knew teenagers often lacked the "skills and clarity to accurately self-assess", and "even for very able youngsters there are significant challenges in making the right choices, a fact evidenced by the high drop- out rates we continue to have from universities and colleges".
EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan commented: "There is sometimes an assumption made that a university career is the way a pupil should go, but we know there are other opportunities. It is important that pupils get access to sound advice that allows them to make an informed decision. What they really need is that face-to-face discussion."
He added: "If SDS is moving to a target-driven agenda where they focus on a group that is most at risk and essentially abandon others or rely on other agencies, that is unsatisfactory."
SDS was trying to direct its resources to those in need, said Malcolm Barron, head of regional operations. The environment in which SDS was operating had changed and young people were now getting their information on careers from a range of sources, he added.
For many, the internet had become a key source of information, and MWOW was meeting that need. Many young people were "very capable" and received support from their parents. "We are trying to get them to use the resources that are available to them at any time of the day," he said.
If "green" pupils found they needed more support after using the online tools, it was "quite legitimate for them to meet with an adviser", Mr Barron added.
Careers in colour
Green Pupils referred to My World of Work website. If further support is required, they contact the SDS call centre; if face-to-face contact is still desired, they can arrange to meet a careers adviser.
Amber Pupils register on MWOW, but also receive regular "customer engagement sessions" to plan their future.
Red Pupils referred to a partner organisation.
Original print headline: Careers `traffic-light' code halts the personal touch