Who is willing to pay for careers information/advice/education?
Those of us who are involved in the careers world would make the argument that being able to draw in help with your career is both a social and an individual good. Careers advice can help to direct society’s resources and maximise the productive potential of the population. What is more it can also help an individual to make the most of their skills and increase their likelihood of being happy and wealthy. Careers work may also help employers and learning providers to attract the right people as recruits, finally it may also help support the engagement of employed staff with their own careers and students with their studies. So if we accept even some of these arguments it is possible to argue that careers work is a valuable thing and that we should really find a way for someone to pay for it.
It seems to me that there a number of likely (and less likely) candidates to pay for careers work.
First and foremost is the government or someone else (e.g. charity) who wants to pay for the social and economic benefits that careers work might bring. At the moment this is how the bulk of careers work is funded. Connexions and Next Step provide careers advice for thousands and thousands of people free at the point of demand. Ring up Next Step and you can get advice on learning opportunities, the labour market and your career. You can also get more advice from Job Centre Plus and a host of other publicly funded sources. This is all well and good and I believe that careers advice should be publically funded, however given the current climate this might not be the most stable source of funding. There are also downsides to leaving this all to the government. It tends to mean that the advice gets directed towards particular groups, usually the poor, where it is expected to solve problems that are much more complex than careers issues. The focus on NEETs under the last government was a good example. The careers sector was dancing to a policy tune and being expected to magically solve long term trends in inequality and social exclusion. Correspondingly the government provides little funding for groups that aren’t perceived to be a problem regardless of whether careers advice might actually be able to help them e.g. mid-qualification employed people.
So Government is likely to be an important funder of careers work, but they are not very likely to pick up the whole tab. So the next group that are normally suggested are the individuals themselves. Careers advice, the argument goes, has major benefits for the individual, helping them to choose and then get jobs, so it is only right that the individual should pay for this. I don’t actually have a problem with this argument in theory. I think that careers advice does help individuals and there is no reason why is shouldn’t have a cost attached. However, the problem is that the market for individual pays careers services seems to be pretty small. Everyone talks about the idea of setting up a consultancy and working with high paying business customers. However I haven’t seen a lot of evidence that there is room for many people in this market. How much can you charge for an hour of something as slippery and long term as careers advice? The benefits usually take a long while to show up in any financial terms and may often involve you facing some uncomfortable truths. How much would you pay for that service?
Even if people can be persuaded to pay for careers services what is the appropriate model for them to be delivered in? How often will someone go back for more and where is the marketplace for these kinds of services. Furthermore how does an individual pays service avoid spinning out the sessions, telling people what they want to hear and fostering co-dependence? Who quality assures it? Even if I was convinced that significant numbers of people would pay for careers advice this isn’t an ethical panacea and we can find just as many problems in this funding model as we can in the government pays model.
A third option would be for employers and learning providers to pay for those services that direct individuals towards their recruiting grounds. This is not to say that careers work needs to just become an arm of recruitment but rather than employers and learning providers might recognise that having a place that individuals can access for careers advice is ultimately in their interests. However the flip side of this might be that it is so much in their interests that they devote time and money to turning it back into an arm of recruitment.
Finally we have the option that careers work might be seen as an integral part of a bigger experience. For example employers may feel that offering their staff career development opportunities is an important part of a broader workforce development strategy and that it offers a way to engage employees and to manage them within and through the organisation. Similarly educational institutions are used to providing students with careers advice as an integral part of the educational experience. Thinking about how what you are doing in your course might apply to rest of your life is a key aspect of learning and may actually help retention and the motivation of students. However as with other potential paymasters there are downsides as well as ups. Embedded careers work is likely to come under pressure to serve the organisation within which it is embedded. If the firm is considering redundancy then it is possible that the ideal career might suddenly start to be outside rather than inside the organisation. Similarly a University struggling for funds is likely to be keen to keep students taking more courses.
So ultimately we end up with the unsurprising finding that he who pays the piper gets to call the tune. However, calling for the tune and getting it are not necessarily the same thing. If the careers
profession was stronger and better qualified and organised it is possible that the piper would have a better chance of playing the old favourite “impartiality” regardless of what the paymaster said. However while this may be a bulwark against abuses it isn’t likely to prevent the more subtle ways in which the agenda is influenced and professional practice shaped by metrics and management requirements. If there is an obvious solution then I can’t see it. Other than for both careers professionals and their clients to be aware of these contradictions and challenges and to constantly confront them. Perhaps Thomas Jefferson was right when he said “the price of good careers advice is eternal vigilance”.