A new advice service is making vital contact with job-seekers. Sue Jones reports
Call centres are not everyone's favourite institutions. In fact, customer backlash over their incompetence reached such a peak last month that one giant energy supplier switched work back from India to Britain.
So it's hard to imagine why anyone would turn to a call centre for careers advice. But since January, 20,000 people have done just that by calling the new personalised consultation service run by the University for Industry's learndirect service.
Many people were sceptical when call-centre staff said, "We'll call you back when you want."
Former sales assistant Sally Callaghan was delighted by her experience.
"The service is fantastic - unparalleled," she said: "They've got all the information there in front of them. They collate it all for you and wrap it up in a really nice way over the telephone so you're fully aware of the situation."
Initial results of the service show that in less than six months half the clients are already in work and shaping new careers.
It is good news for learndirect, which has had to cut contracts for training providers by pound;5 million. Thousands of students looked set to be turned away from the Government's flagship online courses: it had exceeded its target of 30,000 people passing skills for life courses but had overspent, so cuts were needed.
Ms Callaghan left school at 16 with few qualifications but her ambition was always to become a teacher. When she was unexpectedly made redundant, she decided to pursue her dream career. She saw a television advert about learndirect's careers service but was doubtful (Weren't they the people who did online computer courses?) But it was free, so why not? "They were very sensitive," she said. "I was expecting to be a number, but I was an individual. After the initial interview, someone called back at the correct time - I was extremely impressed."
The 2005 skills white paper called for a review of the adult careers information, advice and guidance service. The resulting learndirect service is a pilot that runs until July 2007. It aims to help 100,000 people start new careers. Two hundred advisers work shifts in two call centres. They answer queries from 8am to 10pm, seven days a week.
Callers speak to an adviser who can help with general issues, such as interview techniques, writing a CV or where to look for jobs or courses. If questions are more complex, callers are passed to a learning adviser who specialises in particular types of work and can give counselling about major changes in career direction.
Information given by clients is logged electronically. After an initial interview about the caller's education, work history, interests, ambitions and personal circumstances, caller and adviser agree an action plan and follow-up sessions can be arranged. The profile builds up so that later interviews can pick up where the previous one left off.
Paula Hardwick, advice operations and partnership manager at learndirect, said: "Some clients have a clear idea of what they want. Some value the three-stage model with follow-up calls. Then you're going into the realms of mentoring, finding out about them as you go along and addressing barriers such as family pressures or serious confidence issues."
Advisers are being trained up to higher education level (NVQ level 4) in advice and guidance, and a graduate qualification is being developed with Derby university.
People often feel more comfortable talking over the phone than going to an advice centre, said Ms Hardwick. But this presents challenges for the advisers who have to communicate with people from a variety of educational and social backgrounds and in various psychological states, but without any of the usual non-verbal cues.
Dave Berry, lifelong learning adviser at learndirect, said the advisers need strong listening and problem-solving skills. "It works because we treat people like individuals, really concentrating on what they're trying to say and what their needs are. And we're not trying to sell them anything."
About half the clients are already in work, but they can lack confidence just as much as the unemployed or those facing redundancy.
"They begin not to see the value in what they're doing, and that it involves skills and abilities," said Mr Berry. "It's difficult if they've got bad employers. Their confidence is spiralling down because they're not being rewarded or given progression.
"We often get a person who hasn't had any positive feedback in their job for a long time and we need to pick them up."
Money is the main barrier to radical career changes because of the cost of re-training and the time it takes to earn a good salary again. Ms Callaghan, faced with five years to qualify and the prospect of reduced living standards, has put her teaching ambitions on hold. Instead, she has joined the Halifax as a trainer.
Without the support from the learndirect service, Ms Callaghan said she might not have gone for the job. "It's terrible when you're made redundant and money's tight," she said. "To have someone helpful, friendly and very knowledgeable is great - and it's free."