Here for the CRAC

16th June 2000 at 01:00
The careers industry is set to enter uncharted waters. But David Thomas can see the way ahead. Simon Midgley reports

The man in charge of implementing the most far reaching changes to careers advice in two decades knows a thing or two about careers choices. David Thomas, 53, is the new chief executive of the Careers Research and Advisory Service (CRAC) and a former teacher, graduate liaison officer and life-long learning officer for BT.

The Government's ConneXions initiative, to be set in place by the Learning and Skills Act, envisages careers, social and youth services working as an integrated whole to help the young people most at risk of dropping out of education and employment.

But Thomas is concerned that simply implementing these changes will exceed his organisation's total existing budget.

While recognising that such young people must be enabled to play a fuller role in society, Thomas is fearful that earmarking advisory resources to meet their needs could endanger the careers service's universality and reduce its accessibility - unless, of course, more resources are forthcoming.

"Access to careers information and advice makes a significant difference to sensible career choices," he says. "If young people start to make choices about subject studies and potential careers without access to good quality information and advice, they are more likely to make poor decisions."

Thomas himself has made a number of critical career choices. The new pound;60,000-a-year chief executive of CRAC, the national UK agency for promoting lifelong career development through research and training, is a man of many parts.

Born in Cardiff but brought up in the southern suburbs of Birmingham, he attended King's Norton Grammar School before going to university in 1965.

After graduating from Reading University with a BA (Hons) in History and Politics and Birmingham University with a Postgraduate Certificate in Education, the first 19 years of his working life were spent as a history teacher, first at a boys grammar school in Gloucester and then at Burnham Grammar, where he was head of history and then the school's deputy head.

It may not be entirely how he would wish to be remembered, but one of his claims to fame is that Ulrika Johnsson first appeared on stage in a school play he directed.

Johnsson, who spent her secondary school years at the Buckinghamshire school, was a courtesan in A Comedy of Errors. She later went on to play a witch in Henry VI. Mr Thomas recalls that she was "a lovely girl, always desperately glamorous and popular with boys and girls".

Thomas also became increasingly active in the Secondary Heads Association, where he rose to be chairman of its external relations committee. In 1988, however, he decided the time had come for a radical change of direction. He wanted to earn more money and try his hand at a new career. It was a period when companies were fretting that there might not be enough good graduates to go round and employers were keen to improve their profile in the marketplace.

After writing to five companies, British Telecom appointed him head of graduate and educational liaison for one of its divsions. Within six months, he had become head of graduate recruitment for the whole of BT. In his last year in this role, BT was voted the most impressive graduate recruiter at all 10 graduate recruitment fairs.

Thomas says he showed candidates how to relate their qualifications and experience to appropriate employment opportunities. Applicants could work out their suitability for posts via BT's recruitment literature and, in doing so, really start to think hard about what kind of career might be appropriate.

A series of senior posts ensued before, in February this year, he launched the BT Academy, the company's vehicle for enhancing its employees' lifelong learning. In April, Thomas embarked on the third phase of his career when he joined CRAC.

Young people, he says, do not have that much experience of thinking about what they want to do for a living. Britain has a tradition of teaching a wide variety of subjects which have relatively little vocational application. The trick, therefore, is to help people recognise that they have transferable skills that can be deployed in professions that might not be obviously connected with their studies.

Apart from the ConneXions initiative, three other key issues face the careers service today, Mr Thomas says.

Firstly, the importance of career-related learning in primary schools. This is not careers education as such, but thinking about how young children build up their understanding of the world of work. CRAC's Opening Doors programme offers schools a framework for developing career related learning that integrates the work into the curriculum, builds in progression and offers teachers practical support.

Secondly, CRAC is working with employers and the Government to ensure that people acquire the full range of learning skills. People learn in different ways and it is important to recognise, understand and deploy these different thinking styles and skills.

It is also increasingly vital that people acquire entrepreneurial skills - for example, the ability to turn ideas into reality, to make things happen.

CRAC uses the Insight Programme to give undergraduates experience of working in entrepreneurial environments. This usually involves short residential university courses where students deploy their transferable skills in exercises and simulations.

Finally, online recruitment is an increasingly important means for companies to initiate their graduate recruitment process - for example, graduates can now only apply to BT online.

Apart from his interest in education, careers and recruitment, Mr Thomas, whose apartment overlooks the British Museum in London's Bloomsbury, also has a lifelong interest in amateur dramatics, the theatre, opera, music and architecture.

Recently, he produced Verdi's Otello for the Windsor and Eton Operatic Society, and hehas acted regularly for the Windsor Theatre Guild and the Progress Theatre in Reading. He also enjoys travel and boating - he has his own narrow beam Dutch barge moored at Tewkesbury on the Severn.

Mr Thomas regularly visits Venice, where, he adds, all his leisure interests can be successfully combined in one place.

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