Competing careers education and guidance services are confusing pupils and students, argues Douglas Weir. Some say there is no need for careers education or a careers service. On the one hand they hark back to a romantic view of an age where there was a smooth passage from school to work. On the other they project a present and future where the labour market is so fragmented that there is little point in young people setting their sights on gaining a particular job or career route. As with most generalisations, the truth is somewhere between the extremes.
Over the past 20 years we have become so accustomed to high unemployment and to the assumption that this means severe competition for jobs among school, FE and university. Parents and young people therefore demand careers education and guidance but not necessarily, as Sheila Semple and Cathy Howieson say in their recent report (see page 7), in the form it is presently offered.
Where parents, and sometimes young people, are in difficulty however, is in understanding what jobs, careers and labour markets means today. In a time of rapid economic, technological and organisational change it is seldom possible to specify precisely the skills and qualifications which will guarantee a particular job. The demand by firms for full-time permanent staff has declined; the technological skills which will be required in two years time may not be invented yet; the big local firms which could absorb large numbers of school and college-leavers are now disappearing or contracting.
As the educationist James O'Toole remarked 20 years ago: "Paradoxically, vocationalcareer education is experiencing renewed vigour just when we are recognising that most employers are not really looking for specific abilities, that most skills can be learnt on the job, that the teenage unemployment rate is unrelated to the lack of vocational training and that working class virtues will become anachronistic".
To take one example to illustrate these points. In a large urban comprehensive school it would not be uncommon to find 75 different combinations of job and firm for every 100 school leavers. In that circumstance much of the careers advice-giving has to be general and short term rather than specific and long term.
What is to be done? There seems to be a growing consensus, represented in a recent report from the Institute for Employment Studies and CRAC, that careers education and guidance must be lifelong, integral to education and work, and impartial.
Instead of most careers education and guidance being available at prescribed times for specific purposes, we need to imagine a permanent facility which not only checks individual progress at specified times but is also transparently available to any person at any time.
As with health screening, it takes time for the culture of self-referral to spread but this is more compatible with the theories of careers guidance than the model of an annual careers MOT without which you would lose your right to study or to be employed.
But even a voluntary system would lead to a significant increase in those offering careers education and guidance, and would shift the balance of their activities away from young people to adults. That in itself might have a number of positive outcomes when, instead of the desperation among advisers or clients to "get it right" at age 14 or 18 or 22, the facilities would be available when it was needed Instead of a variety of competing careers education and guidance services, there could be a single facility, or at worst two - work and education-based.
Most recent research shows young people being confused by the competition between the various different professionals offering advice. All have their separate agendas and all have their targets to reach such as ensuring work experience takes place at age 15, allowing young people to have a dose of careers education at prescribed times, or ensuring that young people are placed in accord with local employment and training targets.
These structures leave young people vulnerable to the ambitions of the competing services. Their interests would be better served by a single service staffed by full-timers. In the same manner, once in employment, adults need to know that a facility exists which can help them explore and produce a job change. But neither lifelong advice nor coherent guidance services are sufficient unless those staffing them are neutral and impartial. Each one of the present systems has flaws. Companies may be more interested in recruiting and shedding staff than in developing existing workers; schools and colleges more concerned with curriculum and league table placing than the individual's needs and careers services more focused on their business plans and financial security than in the best interests of their clients.
Only when the providers of guidance can be removed from those other institutional and financial considerations are we likely to achieve the impartial and sole focus on the client.
A number of alternative futures are possible. In the first place, we must recognise that guidance is approaching the standard and status of a profession. Taking the careers service as a model professionals would thus be full-time, trained, accountable but also independent.
Secondly we must recognise that individual guidance needs are not predictable and are lifelong. The changes in curriculum and assessment, formal education extending into the early 20's, the varied employment profiles of businesses, all require a set of flexible responses. A contemporary solution would then be individual vouchers or entitlements to help at any time.
Thirdly, careers education and development are not separate from mainstream education, unemployment or employment. They are integral to all of these. The school curriculum must acknowledge that every subject makes a contribution; the placing agencies should make sure that the programmes they offer make an important contribution to career development and employers must ensure that the individual's present job should not be allowed to be an end in itself but should be seen as a means towards further opportunities.
Some, but not all, of these aims are currently achieved. To meet individual goals and to achieve national targets, both social and economic, requires a concerted effort of a client-centred nature. Quality education and training are never enough, and require professional guidance as an intermediary. It is only through this service that schools and employers can adjust their demands to meet the skills, attitudes, information and experience which young people and adults can supply.
While these people in turn have to recognise the realities of educational and employment opportunities, the nation's progress is more likely to be upward when we pay less attention to demand and more to supply.
Professor Douglas Weir is vice dean of the faculty of education at the University of Strathclyde.