C is for career



Since the release of Quality, Choice and Aspiration – A Strategy for Young People’s Information, Advice and Guidance there has been a lot of debate in the media about the appropriate age to start careers education. This seems bizarre to me because I feel that learning about career is simply part of our normal educational and developmental growth. What is more it starts earlier than key stage two and continues throughout your entire life.


We might reductively describe careers education as being concerned with two main elements

  • Understanding yourself, your abilities and desires
  • Understanding the labour market and the opportunities within it

It is my belief that children are engaged in both of these pretty much from birth.


If we take the first element, that of understanding yourself, it is pretty clear that this is one of the main educational aims that children have. Working out what and who they like and how to get more of it is what children do. This drive to explore identity and find a place in the world drives children’s learning and provides a context within which adults interventions in their development can be meaningful. As a parent or an educator we are normally in the process of trying to expand children’s horizons.


“Try it, you might like it”


“But why do you like pink so much?”


At the same time as helping children to explore and understand the world, parents and educators are in the business of providing opportunities that develop actual or perceived aptitudes.


“He’s very good at football. Do you think that we should get him a coach?”


For children development is a process of self-realisation that can be supported through education of various kinds. The way in which an individual’s identity is constructed in these early years is likely to have profound implications for their personal journey through learning and career.


The second aspect of career education is rather more controversial. At what age should we start teaching about the labour market? Again my answer to this question would be that children begin to explore the labour market almost from birth. First they differentiate between individuals (Mummy, Daddy, Nanny, Grandad) before going on to work out that these are also social roles and that other children also possess Mummies etc. Rapidly other roles are added to this (police officer, shop keeper, doctor etc) along with the realisation that parents often go off to a place that is called “work”. This making sense of the world is essentially a process of building up labour market information and occupational profiles even if most of us would not usually describe it as such.

This process of gaining an understanding of the labour market is well supported by resources. My children watch a programme called Me Too which essentially provides information about a range of occupations through stories and song. When I was a child I watched Mr Benn which essentially fulfilled a similar function. Explaining to me that there were a range of occupations and giving insights into what they did (knights fight dragons etc). There are also loads of books that provide similar learning for children see for example Richard Scarry’s What do people do all day. I’d be interested in hearing about other resources that people have found that offer career learning for very young children.


Learning about the labour market is just part of learning about the world around you. To close this off to children is to fail in their education. So let’s make sure that career education is done well, that it is emancipatory and encourages the raising of aspirations and challenges to social and economic norms – but let’s also make sure that it is a lifelong process that supports learning and working lives from cradle to grave.      


Developing the children’s workforce

The relationship between workforce development and career development is a pretty fine one. Workforce development is essentially an organisation process which aims to transform the culture and human capital of a particular workforce – but this social and organisational process inevitably has personal/individual consequences for the members of the workforce. Conversely career development is usually conceived as essentially an individual process, but one which has social and organisational benefits.

While I was at Vitae the work that I was involved in on the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers was a good example of something that was simultaneously about career and workforce development. The Concordat is designed to provide a better environment for individual career development, but it is also about developing the capacity of the research workforce. There are clearly some tensions here – what may be best for you is not always best for your immediate employer – but by and large we can find common cause between the two agendas. What is more as career professionals the world of organisational/workforce development also offers us some powerful allies and the opportunity to intervene on a more structural level in the processes that influence individual’s careers.

 I’m currently in the process of trying to get my head around some of the policy initiatives that have been taking place within the children’s workforce. The term “the children’s workforce” for the uninitiated refers to all of those professionals who work primarily with children e.g. youth workers, Connexions advisers, social workers, teachers etc etc. The literature suggests that there are something like 2.7 million people employed in this sector, although the fact that it is spread across a wide range of employers (public, private and third sector) and encompasses a wide range of occupations makes it difficult to be exact. There is a strong government initiative (driven to some extent by the Children’s Workforce Development Council) to develop the human capital and organisational structures of the children’s workforce. In some ways this initiative reminds me of the Concordat and similar HE moves, but it is actually far bigger, more complex and ultimately far more ambitious. I’m really writing this blog post to try and help me make sense of some of what I’ve read recently – so please shout if you think that I’ve got it wrong.

Some of the key documents that I’ve identified are

What these documents argue is that the children’s workforce is facing a number of key issues around workforce development. These focus on things like the development of leadership capacity, building more logical career pathways through the sector, developing skills in partnership and cross-expertise working and building the level of qualification and knowledge within the sector. Another interesting idea that informs workforce development in the children’s workforce is the idea that strong professional identities have a positive impact on the quality of services. So teachers perceive themselves to be engaged in a lifelong profession and their professional identity goes beyond their immediate work context. This kind of professional identity is weaker in other areas (e.g. youth work) and these strategies suggest ways to strengthen it, largely through up skilling, developing the proportion of qualified practioners and by creating more transparent career progression.

The government argues that this workforce is key to the social fabric and is correspondingly investing large amounts of money in its development. Careers workers clearly have something to offer to this kind of initiative. The children’s workforce is so complex that people are likely to need some IAG type support in order to maximise their ability to navigate through it. While the current workforce development agenda asks us to consider the children’s workforce as a single workforce there are likely to continue to be high levels of diversity within it in terms of qualification, pay, conditions, employers etc. Government policy does not attempt to homogenise this workforce, but rather to make it connect better and to enable cross agency etc working to flourish. An important element of this is to develop a common core of skills and knowledge, but an equally important element must be to create dynamic careers within the sector that act as ways to transfer knowledge, skills and contacts from one section of the workforce to another.

Ultimately I feel that careers professionals have a lot to offer in the area of workforce development. All too often we are focused on the issue of transition (school to work, job to job) between institutions rather than transition within institutions (dealing with change, managing advancement). We should be assertive in arguing that this is also a legitimate place for us to be active in supporting career learning.

A history lesson

Marx said that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”, but a reading of David Peck’s Careers Services: History, policy and practice in the United Kingdom suggests that Marx under-estimated the ability of mankind to fail to learn from its own mistakes. Peck’s book shows that the history of UK careers services is a history of governmental mismanagement, repetition and opportunities missed.  Despite the best efforts of those in the profession the perceived political and economic significance careers work means that governments have been unable to leave careers services alone and have constantly reconceptualised their role and purpose. Peck’s book, then provides us with a handy guide to this political and organisational history between 1902 and 2003.

What is frustrating about the story that Peck tells is the way in which government policy at once acknowledges the importance of careers work and at the same frequently chooses to develop policy without listening to the practioners who actually know something about it. This is not to say that professionals should have a stranglehold over policy development, clearly in a democratic and pluralist state it is important to listen to the multitude of voices. Given the way that careers work sits between the worlds of education, employment, youth work and so on it is clear that the opinions of careers professionals should be only part of that bigger discussion. However it is not clear that as the nature of the careers services were focused and refocused during the twentieth century, that any government consistently is listening to any of those voices or indeed to the voices of the users and clients of the services.

So the history of careers work is one in which the policy and institutional frameworks within which practioners operate lurch between different conceptual poles about what careers work is supposed to be achieving. It might be worth briefly setting out some of these poles in order to think about where a more considered approach might take us.

So we have

  • Careers as servant to economic planning
  • Careers as agent of personal development and self-actualisation
  • Careers as social leveller
  • Careers as education
  • Careers as social work or youth work
  • Careers as welfare safety net
  • Careers as employment agency
  • Careers as extension of employers recruitment and training

And so on…

Probably careers work needs to encompass a little of all of these definitions, and probably all of us would put the emphasis in different places. Peck certainly suggests in the book that there would be value in progress towards a universal adult guidance service which could operate with individuals at various stages in their lives, careers and with varying degrees of skills and knowledge. It is clear that this is not the direction that careers related policy has been moving in over recent years. Others, might put the emphasis in different places, but it is not so much a difference in emphasis that is frustrating. There is undoubtedly room for 1000 flowers to bloom (Marx and now Mao – what ever next!), but the expenditure that has gone into the repeated construction and deconstruction of different versions of the careers services is shocking and must have expended huge resource on structure rather than service delivery.

It is worth setting out Peck’s main thesis as it is extremely useful in understanding how careers services have developed over the last 100+ years. Peck argues that the three historical themes in careers guidance services are:

  1. An uncertain administrative framework
  2. A body of dedicated practioners able to exert influence individually and collectively
  3. Increasing awareness of the educational, social and economic value of career guidance as the twentieth century progressed

We can only hope that (3) remains as the trajectory and that (2) manage to reduce the negative aspects of (1) in the future.

Peck’s book opens up some very interesting questions and there is room for substantial work to follow it up in the future. There are some key turning points for the guidance movement that would merit further investigation ranging from the origins of guidance work to a deeper consideration of the ideological perspectives of New Labour as they interact with guidance and related fields. The further work that I’d be most interested in would be a companion volume that looked at the social and cultural history of guidance and guidance practioners. This would provide some really exciting additions to our understanding of the political and institutional developments described by Peck.

Any historians out there who want to talk more about this should get in touch.

Past its sell-by date? Career guidance for the 21st century

Last night’s NICEC/CRAC debate was, all in all, pretty good value. A couple of nicely opinionated lead offs followed by an opportunity to get stuck in with your own opinions on the future of IAG (or one of the various names it was given over the course of the evening), before finishing off with food, wine and networking with the great and the good of the careers’ establishment.

What was particularly nice about the debate was the way in which it drew audience from a wide range of backgrounds. We had career coaches, people who worked in higher education, prisons, schools and companies. We had researchers, developers, trainers, practioners and policy people. In essence it was a group of people who rarely all come together in a room and it is worth praising NICEC and CRAC for being able to mobilise this wide range of people. I wonder if it is worth thinking about whether the next NICEC event could do something that utilises this meeting of the tribes more consciously.

Anyway on to the debate which asked:

Past its sell-by date? Careers guidance for the 21st century.

Bill Law (of www.hihohiho.com) led off with a typically radical take on the question. Career guidance, he argued, needed to be reimagined as a much broader undertaking of careers work. We need to move away from a narrow professionalism which is determined by what has gone before, by top-down policy pronouncements and by employers’ perception of their immediate needs. We need then to reorientate around a more expansive programme of what Bill calls ‘life-wide learning’. This is about working with people to explore their values, life chances and the kinds of impact that they have on the world around them. Bill’s perspective is counter-hegemonic both in terms of how the ‘profession’ perceives its role and in what policymakers and funders of our work are looking for from us.

A lot of interesting stuff in here, I felt, but pretty challenging to the profession and to the individual. Critical thinking is generally not a particularly comfortable experience for most people and Bill was really asking people to engage in a lot more of it.

So, when Rachel Mulvey (Psychology, UEL) stepped up to the plate, people were hoping for a few reassuring words. However, Rachel didn’t offer any easy answers either. Her argument was that much was wrong with career education and guidance as it entered the twenty-first century. However, just because it was not perfect was not a reason to give up on it? Despite the problems that may exist, Rachel argued that the public/policy/media perception was much too negative. She recounted stories of being blamed for the (imagined) sins of previous generations of careers professionals at numerous parties. However, these negative anecdotes only tell one half of the story and we can find lots of counter-evidence of those who have had a good experience.

What is more, Rachel argued, those who criticise career guidance actually are endorsing the ideal. They argue that career guidance could make a difference to society and could be transformative for individuals, but the implementation of the ideal is flawed. Actually this ends up a paradoxical endorsement of the idea of careers education and guidance.

Rachel then went on to argue that the profession needs to refocus itself by making changes, developing theory and practice and being as she described it “bigger, better, brasher”. Both improving what we do and improving the way that we communicate that to others.

I found all of this fascinating. Both Bill and Rachel clearly had a point. There is a need for change, but there is also a need to reassert the value of careers work in all its forms. My concern was with the repeated use of the word “we”. Who is this “we” who has to reimagine careers work. If it goes beyond those who conceive their identity as “careers advisers” or something similar then it is difficult to see how the “we” can act. Even if it is confined to that group it is difficult to locate the space in which higher education careers advisors are talking to those working in the area of social exclusion and so on. Fragmentation makes a grand project of reinvention difficult (not impossible, just difficult). Bill’s talk of forging partnerships is instructive here, however, “we” need to forge partnerships both to deliver careers work and to really discover what careers work is or could be. I would have liked to have spent more time talking about where these alliances and partnerships could be.

Nonetheless, this debate made an important contribution to my thinking about the future of career. I look forward to the associated paper with eagerness.   

Moving on

So I picked up my banjo and walked out of the door for the last time. My time at CRAC came to an end with the gift of a great (but eccentric) leaving present and some kind words (and of course an evening down the pub).

Breaking up is hard to do sang Neil Sedaka and leaving a job is very definitely a kind of breaking up. You spend more time with your work colleagues than you do with your partner so when that comes to an end it is obviously difficult to say goodbye.

I recently wrote about transitions on the Vitae Research Staff blog and it all seems rather sharper now that I’m actually transitioning myself. However, I suppose the point that I was trying to make was that career and life are both processes of constant transition. We are always moving from place to place, time to time and conversation to conversation. We may have moments that mark this off (like starting or ending a job) but the process of transition is always with us.

My relationship with CRAC demonstrates this in a number of ways. I first became aware of CRAC when I tutored on the Insight Plus courses. These were experiential training course focused on employability skills and career and I guess that they got me started in my whole adventure in career development. The course that we ran at Leicester eventually transmogrified itself into the Leicester Award which is still going strong. However, before this I had the opportunity to meet quite a few people from CRAC and discover that somewhere deep in the heart of Cambridge there was an organisation that spent its time thinking up ideas about skills, training and experiential learning. “I wonder what it would be like to work for them?” I thought.

A year or so later I moved jobs within the University of Leicester to run the University’s postgraduate training programme. Pretty soon I got invited to the launch of What do PhDs do? which blew my mind. I thought it was great both because it demonstrated that my own career was more usual than I’d realised (yippee I’m not a freak or a failure) but also because it demonstrated the power of research in the generation of educational resources. I then joined the Midlands Hub, went to numerous UK GRAD events and conferences and tutored on a GRADschool. These were all great learning experiences for me and were all good fun and an opportunity to meet some nice people.

Without planning it I was transitioning myself into working for CRAC. I was building contacts, understanding the organisation and its agenda   and developing the knowledge and experience that would ultimately get me the job. Obviously this was only one of many, many possibilities, but it seemed like a good one and so when a job came up I jumped at it.

I then spent 18 happy months working for CRAC. I was developing the Vitae programme, but I also had the opportunity to watch colleagues building the icould website and resources. CRAC was still generating some pretty exciting stuff, and I’m sure it will go on generating lots more stuff at the cutting edge of careers education.

So now I’ve moved on to iCeGS transitioning to something new and exciting.  However, I hope that I’ll be able to keep a lot of the contacts and interests that I developed while at CRAC. I wonder if this is one of the features of a professional career – that you take your friends with you, that the network and the knowledge become more important than the employer or the job, that continuity sits next to transition as being a defining characteristic of career.


Could just be that I’m terrible at saying goodbye…

Researchers’ skills and competencies: At a glance

Just posted to the Vitae website is a new flyer aimed at non-HE employers entitled Researchers’ skills and competencies: At a glance. If you scroll to the back page and look closely in the small print you will see that I had a hand in writing this.


The idea was to produce something that was short and punchy and that could get the message through to non-HE employers that researchers might just have a value for their business. Have a look at it and see if you think we pulled it off.


Any other ideas about how to get non-HE employers to consider employing researchers are also gratefully received.