The Careers Market(s)

Here are some thoughts on the careers market. I’d appreciate any feedback that anyone can give me as to whether this is making any sort of sense.


Careers is a complex field which encompasses a large amount of life, learning and work. One way to conceptualise the field is to see careers as a market within which a number of actors are operating. Each actor pursues their own needs, interests and concerns and through a series of transactions the market as a whole reaches some kind of accommodation. The purpose of this discussion is to establish some key terms that may be useful in examining this market and how it operates.


If an individual is seeking employment we describe them as interacting with the labour market. They may ask the question “what work can I do?” while employers correspondingly ask “who can I get?” in their search for the appropriate human capital to fill the post.


Closely allied to the labour market is the learning market. In this market individuals ask “what qualifications do I need?” and “where should I study”. Learning providers vie to attract these individuals either to offer them courses in exchange for money or to access public money of various kinds.


Taken together the labour market and the learning market might be said to comprise the careers market. In this sense the careers market comprises of all of the opportunities that an individual might pursue within their career and all of the employers, learning providers and other organisations who are providing these opportunities. Even for an individual with relatively little career capital to spend this is likely to be a bewildering market to enter. Without some help and tools to manage their interactions with the market they are vulnerable to being misled and may subsequently make bad choices.


However, individuals are not left alone to sift through the market information as they make their decisions with the careers market. Rather they are able to access a wide range of support, advice and information. This career helping market is also complex and involves those who are looking for help choosing between services which offer different amounts of interaction, impartiality, independence, cost and expertise. Actors in the career helping market include conventional public sector careers services and their close relations private sector careers coaches, but it might also include a plethora of information sources, recruitment sites and consultancies, education and training initiatives and mentoring schemes as well as the social and professional networks of the individuals seeking help.


If it is economically important for individuals skills and potential to be best utilised then the functioning of the careers market is of critical public concern. If the careers market functions well individuals will engage positively in the economy, finding opportunities that fulfil them and developing skills that enable them to take advantage of market opportunities. Conversely if the careers market functions badly individual aspiration will be stymied and human capital will not be applied to the sections of the economy in which it is most valuable.


One approach to this problem might be to argue that if the careers market is indeed a market why not leave it to the ‘invisible hand’ to resolve what is best applied where. Whatever your opinion about the likelihood of free market economics to deliver the best result for all concerned we are dealing here with something that is a long way from a free market. The government is a major employer in the labour market, it funds a large percentage of the learning market and also provides a key segment of the career helping market through the provision of professional IAG services such as Connexions and Next Step.


If the invisible hand is being guided it is important to think about the direction in which it is being guided. The intervention of government and the wider public sector shapes the careers market but does not fully determine its nature or outcomes. There is therefore room for further thought about how the public sector relates to the other players in the market (from employers to careers coaches) and how it uses the policy levers at its disposal (funding, regulation, legislation, recommendation etc) to further shape the market.


In the current environment of policy change and challenges to public sector spending it is important to be clear about what public money is buying and why. I believe that thinking about public sector in terms of its role in shaping a market as well as in delivering a services is a useful contribution to this discussion.


Am I right?




  1. In order for a free market to work efficiently it has to allow failure. Only the producers who can provide what people want at a price they are willing to pay will succeed; the others will fail and go out of business. That’s why World Trade Organisation talks always come to nothing. For there to be true free trade around the world some industries in some countries will have to fail. But countries aren’t willing to allow this to happen to them, so we get tariffs and embargoes and other fixes and fudges.Maybe the important question to ask about the careers market is what sort of failure are we happy to allow in order to make the market work?

  2. I think that a completely free market can only exist on the level of abstraction. The question is rather what sort of blend between public and private do you want/need to make society work effectively. I think that careers advice should be recognised as an important need in a free society. However it would require a very radical overhaul of the current system to imagine a situation where everyone has as much as they want for free. So how do we proceed? With some kind of compromise between public and private. But, what is that compromise to be?Not sure, but I’m sure that between us we can come up with some new ideas to try. Especially when technology is making so many new forms of interaction possible.

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