Vacancy for a career service

18th February 2005 at 00:00
Five years old, and ready for the chop? As I write the picture remains murky, but it does look as if Connexions, the well-known misspelling, is likely to go belly-up. Careers guidance looks like returning to its old homes in LEAs, schools and colleges. Which, one might surmise, puts the lid on the concept of joined-up mentoring.

There will be mourning and rejoicing both. Anecdotally, there is plenty of evidence that some Connexions outfits have done a splendid job, in particular for disaffected teenagers with no intelligent parental support.

There is also evidence that others have not. And of course there will be relief among the hoity upper-middles that the rather intrusive, commercially linked Connexions database will no longer invade the privacy of their gilded offspring, who as everybody knows are going to glide automatically through a Russell Group university and into a soopah job.

But it provides a good opportunity to muse on what we actually want out of careers guidance. How did any of us end up where we are? How much logic is there in it ? How will our children fare, as new jobs are invented and old ones die? The world changes.

I love the Charles Handy story of how as a young executive his boss showed him a map of the world, pointed at a country and said "In 20 years you could be heading up our division here". Twenty years later, not only did the division and the company not exist, but the country didn't either.

And talents emerge at different speeds. I do interviews with a constant stream of achievers, mavericks, and survivors of chequered pasts, and calculate that at least half of all interesting working lives are come by accidentally.

"I was passing this workshop door and looked in, and one thing led to another..." they say, or "Well, I was going to be a solicitor but somehow the dressmaking took over...". There are eminent palaeo-zoologists who started out as museum porters because they were big and strong enough to carry huge stone bones; charity workers who were actually trying to be rock singers, women who reluctantly married a family business and were better at it than their husbands, and innumerable performers, painters, travellers and writers whose parents had them firmly marked down for the army or the family widget firm.

A month or so back, making a programme about merchant seafarers, I discovered that every other cadet you meet in this underrated profession admits that it was purely by chance that they found out there was any such thing as a British merchant navy. Their careers advisers never even mentioned it, not having noticed that a long-declining sector has suddenly expanded again.

Because youth is such a vivid time, everybody has a story about careers advice. My husband - whose school said "Oxford-and-Cambridge or the steelworks" - went to a council careers adviser to ask about getting into broadcasting, and emerged with a booklet on scientific instrument making.

So he ran off to be a theatre electrician, and got round to radio that way.

Women will tell you how they went in to their session wanting to be airline pilots and came out with a baffled frown and a leaflet on nursing.

Blokes from "good" schools will tell you about careers masters who had never heard of any calling other than teaching, medicine or law. One of my schools was unhealthily fixated on making us be probation officers, once they had established that we really didn't want to be nuns.

My daughter was made to do a computer aptitude test at 12 in which she was asked what things she liked. Just for fun, she ticked "No" to everything .

'Do you like working with people? No! With animals? No! On your own initiative? No! Do you enjoy working with your hands? No!" etc. After some cogitation, the computer informed her that her niche was as a carpet fitter. I have not felt happy about floorcoverings since.

A careers service has to fulfil a vast, unwieldy, almost superhuman role - offering wide vistas of choice and chance without creating mad expectations, and narrowing them down to the possible without discouraging bright ambition.

A career mentor has to be omniscient about educational systems, and have an ear to the ground for the slightest social change. He or she must somehow preach consistency and effort and focus, while simultaneously getting across the message that few modern jobs are for life.

A careers adviser must respect a sense of vocation, while cautioning gently that these days, almost everyone needs the flexibility to reinvent a career three or four times before retirement.

Whatever replaces Connexions has to know everything, push nothing, avoid political agendas and keep a broad mind. "You want to be a drag queen - let me see, there's a course here somewhere ... but remember, it's still worth doing that physics A-level."

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