Careers centres are not just for school-leavers. As Stevie Martin told Elaine Carlton, they're now open to everyone
When people tell Stevie Martin they have no idea what they want to do with their lives she can identify with them perfectly. It took more than 10 jobs over the course of 15 years for her to discover that her ideal post was working as a careers adviser. During that time she worked as a research assistant, a credit controller and a trainer of housekeepers. She brought up young children as a single parent and survived on benefit while working for an adult training programme, spending as little as Pounds 15 a week on food.
This month she takes up the post of president at the Institute of Careers Guidance after working as a careers adviser for nine years for Learning Partnerships West in Gloucestershire. (formerly part of Gloucestershire local education authority).
One of the most appealing aspects of her job is being able to make a difference to people's lives. "I love the feeling of being helpful and helping other people change things in their lives," she said. "After all I've been through I can identify with many of my clients' problems, particularly the difficulties of childcare."
Much of Stevie Martin's time is taken up with interviewing clients. She concentrates particularly on adults: recent graduates, mothers returning to work after their children have grown up, people wanting to change jobs or those who have moved to Britain from abroad.
Often she sees as many as five people a day for up to an hour each time. She tries to build up a picture of the person's educational history and work experience. Discovering her clients' strengths and weaknesses and the jobs which might suit them often involves carrying out psychometric tests (similar to those seen in The Krypton Factor). She also tests their verbal, numerical and perceptual abilities.
"I will often ask them how they'd feel doing a dirty job in smelly conditions such as an abattoir or whether they'd feel afraid climbing ladders to put up scaffolding," she said.
The client receives a summary of the interview and methods of action which may lead them into training or employment.
Joan Smith is typical of Stevie Martin's clients. She has spent the last 13 years at home raising a family. Although she has six O-level GCEs and experience as a secretary, the years spent bringing up the children have left her lacking in self-confidence and feeling she has nothing to offer an employer.
Ms Martin reminded Joan of the skills she has picked up managing a home and family and told her that many of these are exactly what employers are looking for. After the interview, Joan was encouraged to do an Opportunities for Women course at her local FE college and, using an Open University self-help pack, decided to train as an accountancy technician.
A careers interview costs between Pounds 35 and Pounds 75 and anyone earning more than Pounds 10,000 a year must pay for the service.
Stevie Martin believes the service offered by the careers guidance companies since privatisation is a tighter procedure than before, with more quality control. It also means clients are treated to better facilities and more luxurious buildings.
Despite this, adults passing by their local high street office are still unsure whether the company is there to help them, says Stevie Martin.
"The careers and guidance service has dealt with adults for 15 years, but this wasn't a well-publicised fact and there was no constant public funding for this service," she said.
"It is a hangover from the local authority days that adults are still unsure whether they can get help from careers centres. They still think they are solely for young people."
She complains that funding for adults who are unemployed and want to use the careers companies still remains a problem.
"Various government initiatives such as guidance credits - where clients receive a voucher from the local training and enterprise council to pay for a careers interview - often take a long time to materialise. This means either the client has to wait for their interview or the careers company has to wait to get paid."
Stevie Martin also works on a variety of other projects in different locations. She has helped an insurance company set up a careers library and trained a number of its personnel to enable them to give careers guidance to employees. She has also given redundancy counselling to former employees in a number of blue-chip firms. Her work has also taken her to prisons to prepare inmates for the world outside.
"I enjoy helping people to plan their lives and giving them some of the encouragement they need to get back to work."
One thing is for sure, if she ever needs to find another job, Ms Martin will know where to look next time.