Close encounters of the guidance kind: In space no one can hear your advice

Today, I’m giving the keynote at the NAEGA conference. Below are some notes of the sort of thing that I might say.

This has never happened to me before. I was invited to speak here without really being given a brief.

I have often been told to shut up, and sometimes been told to talk about something, but never, ever told to talk about nothing.

Luxury for me – purgatory for you – you’ll be the judge of that!

So what to do….

  • • I could undertake a comparative analysis of skills policy in Azerbaijan and Zanzibar.
  • • I could perform a detailed analysis of the positions taken by key members of the Career Professional Alliance during recent negotiations – uncovering their deepest political and psychological motivations
  • • I could have done what Siobhan suggested and brought my guitar and performed a song about the history of career guidance.

But , no. I decided that I wanted to do something on the future of guidance. And so inevitably I looked to science fiction films for inspiration.

So you could have had

  • Employability – the final frontier – except of course as Terry Pratchet pointed out you can’t have a final frontier because there would be nothing for it to be a frontier too.
  • We could have boldly gone where no careers adviser has been before
  • We could have had The Matrix without even changing any of the words. I `always wondered whether the inventers of the quality standard were aware of the film – because the Matrix in the film isn’t really a good thing you know. 
  • And of could we could have gone for Live long and prosper – which is actually a good piece of careers advice
  • While we are drawing good careers advice from sci fi films let’s not forget Yoda’s memorable Do or do not. There is no try!

But, no. I went for Close encounters of the guidance kind: In space no one can hear your advice.

So I’m going to take you on a rip roaring ride through the future. There will be computers, space, a little bit of politics, a new vision for guidance practice, a challenge to the idea of impartiality, lots of tools and an opportunity to travel forward to some of my visions of the future.

Do you think you can handle the future?

So what does Close encounters of the guidance kind: In space no one can hear your advice actually mean?

[Because obviously it couldn’t just be a catch title I dreamt up without any idea of what I was going to talk about]

Close encounters is what most people see guidance as being all about.

We are up close and personal, dealing with people’s deep seated issues. Exploring how their individual psyche influences their career. We are understanding their depths, their complexity and of course we are understanding their problems and issues. In other words we are counselling them and getting them to make the fundamental personal breakthroughs that will underpin their personal success.

This is one model. A careers professional is a counsellor who also knows about the labour market. Our expertise derives from this matching of the personal and the contextual and it is enacted in a close encounter, one-to-one, with the door closed.

There are great things about this model. But there are also problems with it. When I was in Canada over the summer the careers educator Rob Straby said that counsellors are addicted to having clients experience breakthrough moments while they are in the room. So sometimes the close encounter can be in tension with the space – but we’ll get to that later.

But of course, whatever you think of this model, it has become seriously debased in its enactment through Next Step and most other government funded careers service. Our model is of deep guidance, but government policy only requires and enables very limited advice work. The targets, constraints and processes that characterise the industry provide us with very little space to act.

Space is an interesting word, we have outer space (where careers workers have never been – but where we must ultimately go) and inner space (where they seek to go). Under the current regime the profession has little space to think or space to innovate. But space is not just conceptual, it is also physical and geographical. We can have space to move and space between us. But if you listen to the recent rhetoric that has come out of the careers sector about “face-to-face” guidance, about the importance of the close encounters, this kind of space is the enemy. But, I think we need to be careful about saying that if we aren’t next to people we can’t help them to develop their career thinking. I think that the future is going to be bound up with how we use space and how we understand the spaces that we operate in.

So I want to talk about space and the future. I want to talk about learning spaces and political spaces, but in the unlikely event that anyone here has read anything that I’ve written, you’ll also probably be expecting me to talk about online spaces. And I’m happy to do that.

I’m interested in technology and careers work. So I normally get calls from people who want me to talk about how they can use their computer.

“Tristram, how can we use the internet for career guidance?”

“Tristram, how can we use mobile phones for career guidance?”

“Tristram, how can we use the Zanussi 7000 washing machine for career guidance?”

 “Tristram, my, computer isn’t working”
– To which the only answer is turn it off and on again

My problem with this kind of stuff, and I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me, but essentially it is all about tools. It is all about what does this machine do, nothing about what kind of space it creates and even less about what people do with it.

Tools are all very well but as they say

– Guns don’t kill people – …….

So I thought that I’d turn the tables on you and ask you what we should do with various tools that are going to shape the future of guidance. In a little game I call

– What the hell are we going to do with that?

In groups I want you to discuss the objects I give you and come up with the one that is really going to reshape the future of guidance.

Back in 1988 I was sitting in school in South London looking out of the window while pushing a pencil across a series of tick box questions. These were going to entered into the Local Education authorities super computer which was going to tell me what I was suited to do for a living for the rest of my life.

Had I not lost the output of this process along with my PE kit on the train between Sidcup and Bexley I might have gone on to have a glittering career. However, as I didn’t get this information I’ve been muddling through ever since.

The point is not that the psychometric tool I was given was exactly bad, the point is that I didn’t encounter it in a meaningful learning space. Information, even personalised information, doesn’t necessarily lodge in our brains just because we have access to it. Obviously it is even more difficult for it to lodge in our brains if it is travelling endlessly between Gravesend and Charing Cross on an undisclosed train, but that’s not the point here.

The point is the tool was neither t
he problem or the solution. The space was the problem (giving the output of the tool to me with no discussion or support) and the design of a better learning space would have been the solution.

A one-to-one guidance session is a learning space, it has got some real strengths – it is personalised, it helps people to focus, it is private and so on, but it is only one type of learning space and it is in the design of learning spaces and learning opportunities that I would see the real skill of the careers worker.

So I think that if careers work has a future we need to start to talk about careers workers as educators. I think that there is good reason to argue that our expertise is the most important piece of the education system.

Thinking about how you learn, who you are, what your strengths and weaknesses are, what you want and how you relate to the education system and the rest of the world. We need to be assertive on this one as the idea of learning about ourselves, the world and our place in it are the core values of liberal education. This is the stuff in which we trade and we need to be arguing that this journey to self-knowledge and self-expression through work and life is the spine that runs through the entire education system. What is more careers workers are brave enough to work with learners outside of formal environments. So it might be true to say that careers is the spine, not of the education system, but of learning wherever it might find a place in someone’s life.

This lifelong and life wide ability to foster and inspire learning is what career guidance is about – the close encounter is just one mechanism amongst many to bring it about.

Now, this is where I think that the internet starts to be a bit of a different kind of tool from a washing machine or a psychometric inventory. The internet is a space, and at its best it is a learning space. It offers a huge opportunity for careers work and it offers an opportunity that I think we should enthusiastically embrace as our future.

It is easy to get into a moaning frame of mind. We can sit and moan about public sector spending cuts, reality TV, hoodies, the fact that they renamed the Marathon as Snickers (no surrender on that one from me) and so on. But sometimes we need to take a step back and remember how amazing the time we live in is. 

Next time you are moaning about how slow the card reader in a shop is to connect. Think that there a tiny box that is reading information off a tiny card, that it is sending this information into space to bounce off a satellite that we sent up in a rocket, that the satellite is resending the information to a computer which is connecting this information up with one of that banks million computers, making a decision about whether you have enough money, accounting the transaction, sending the information back to space and back again and then letting you walk out of the shop having bought a Marathon without having any change in your pocket.

Now that’s a tool!

But the possibilities of the internet for careers work are just as vast for careers as they are for banking and retail. We just haven’t grasped what they are yet. If 100 years ago Frank Parsons’ had access to current information about occupations, labour markets and job vacancies all over the world, if he’d been able to choose from hundred of different tests and tools and if, most importantly he’d be able to broker contacts between individuals across the world, his head would have probably exploded with excitement. Even 20 years ago the internet was a tiny irrelevant network of geeks. Even 10 years ago it was basically an enormous information dump. But now we live in a world in which the social fabric is stitched together with the internet.

And it is changing the world. Let’s take a detour into 10 Pin Bowling to try and explain why this is the case…

The sociologist Robert Putnam wrote a book in 2000 called Bowling Alone. In it he argued that from the 1950s America had seen a steady decline in the number of Bowling Leagues. At one point you had a pool of people in your bowling team, if someone couldn’t make it one week, that was OK. But gradually Bob couldn’t come out because he worked too far away, Jim couldn’t come out because he had moved further out of the city, Doug couldn’t make it because his favourite TV programme was on and so on. Eventually you have to fold your bowling team and ultimately even the bowling league couldn’t function any more. The process was slow so people hardly noticed it, but eventually it speeds up because the teams and the leagues fall away and there is no one to go bowling with any more.

Putnam’s point (and mine) was ultimately not about Bowling as such. It was about the increasing individualisation of society, the collapse of civil institutions and also about the increasing unhappiness and political disaffection of the population. We used to work together, come together and socialise. In these social spaces we also advanced our career. Making contacts, seeing connections and forming professional associations and trade unions to advance our collective career interests.

However, under the pressure of suburbanisation, car culture and the influence of TV we increasingly sat in alone isolated from our neighbours and communities. Is this a problem for career guidance? Career guidance is about the individual – surely you can still pursue your individual aims within a more individualised society. Is this not our problem?

Thankfully we may not have to answer that. The growth of the internet, and more particularly the technologies that I call social media have sparked a revival of community. We can sustain friendships, connections and so on more easily, we trade personal and professional information around our online social networks. We build the capacity for collective action more easily than ever before.

Ok – so here is a story

Nick Fruhling was an aspiring animator who wanted to work for Pixar. He looked on the companies website and found a joke job add asking people to apply for the position of human cannonball.

So Nick applied.
He set up a website detailing his application for the position. He ran the Vancouver marathon in costume as the human cannonball. He basically created a social media campaign and people started to notice him. When everyone was talking about him, his work got greater exposure and although he didn’t get a job at Pixar it did move his career on. He used the internet as a space to build his career, but his biggest resource was thinking about how to make use of other people and to make his job hunt, their job hunt.

Another story

Linus Torvalds is a Finnish software engineer. In 1991 he was a second year student at the University of Helsinki. He wanted to create a new operating system. His design was not ready to launch anything commercial. He had the centre of the system, but it had problems. So it put it out on the web and asked for help with developing it.

10s, 100s and then 1000s of people got involved in giving him feedback, encouragement and then eventually in writing bits of code and developing the system. The operating system Linux was born. No one owns it and everyone can contribute ideas to it. Torvalds is a rich man, but his career was built by collaborating socially with people around the world to make something that is free and designed to make everyone’s life better. If he’d stayed as a talented programmer working on his own, he might have got a decent job, but his career as one of the gurus of the open source software movement would never have happened. His career choice was a social one, underpinned by moral and ethical beliefs, and enabled by the social space created by the internet.

Another story

In 2005 the Royal O
asis Golf Resort and Casino in the Bahamas was shut down. 1200 people lost their jobs and were informed that they were not going to get redundancy pay, in fact they were not even going to get the pay that they were owed. Their union had very few options and so contacted the international website LabourStart. Over the next 12 weeks the Government of the Bahamas received around 1000 messages from all over the world and eventually made good on the redundancy package. The internet had enabled collective action and international solidarity. The lives and careers of 1200 displaced workers were improved by this collective action. And this collective action in turn was enabled by the social and international nature of the internet.

The internet creates social spaces which new forms of social, educational and economic organisation are growing. And around which new forms of career are emerging.

It creates spaces in which individuals learn about life, reach out for help, sustain relationships and make career connections. If a job is what you do at work and career is how you join different jobs together and also how you join your job with your learning and your life. If this is career, then the internet is where people are enacting their careers. They are enacting them in social ways travelling in groups and networks. They are talking and socialising – they are having encounters that are emotionally and conceptually close even if they are not physically close. 

There is a possibility that our society is getting more social, that new tools and spaces provide new opportunities for community. We also might be seeing a world in which conventional monopolistic media and state power are become less powerful. In my dreams we are seeing a more open, more free, more democratic, less hierarchical world.

I’m willing to accept that this is moving into the territory of hope and dreams rather than evidence, but I can dream can’t I? We have to be careful not to fall into techno-utopianism – this is only one of many possible futures. I’m reminded of the Argentinean socialist Juan Posada who reasoned that as socialism was a more advanced form of civilisation, any aliens who made it to earth must be bringing socialism. He wrote “We must call upon beings from other planets when they come to intervene, to collaborate with the inhabitants of the Earth to overcome misery. We must launch a call on them to use their resources to help us.”

So making a better world is just a question of waiting for the alien invasion.

The internet isn’t going to save us. I’m not a techno-utopian. We have to make the future of our society and of our profession and our work. So what kind of future do we want? Can it be a more social and democratic one? And can career guidance contribute positively to this?

Can career development be social? Surely career is about me – getting on. We support people to help themselves. But helping yourself only goes so far. I can work really hard and buy a new car, but I can’t work really hard and buy safe streets or a good school system. These are collective aims, but are they not also career aims?

I have a career aim to retire on a good pension. I’m probably never going to be rich, so the only way I can get that is through collective action. But, would you ever see “join a trade union” or organise a march on a career action plan? Maybe you should …

People will say this amounts to me pushing my politics. Career guidance should be impartial, it shouldn’t push an agenda – but impartiality is as slippery as a fish. What if our impartiality means that we have to accept that some people will never be able to achieve the aims they dream of? Is that impartiality or is that siding with the establishment.

Sarah Bosley, John Arnold and Laurie Cohen talk about “positive partiality” as a better was for us to frame our practice. I think that “transparent partiality” is a better phrase. Clients should know where I’m coming from so that they can judge what they make of my advice.

Tony Watts says that career guidance can take one of four positions.

It can be conservative
– keep you in you in your place

It can be liberal
– help you find your place

It can be progressive
– help you realise that you have the ability to go to a better place

It can be radical
– challenge the very idea of place

So again I say – we live in challenging times –
– we live in a world in which technology is reframing society, our careers and our profession in very radical ways.
– What role is our profession going to play in that?

I’m going to ask you to close your eyes and I’m going to transport you to three visions of the future. In each of these I want you to ask yourself two questions.

  • what could career guidance have done to make each of these futures more or less likely to happen.
  • What would it be like to be a career guidance practitioner in each of these futures

Close your eyes

Future shock #1: When we’ve run out of clean air

The morning alarm rings in Gasopolis waking you up into a customary fit of coughing. You peer out of the window to see little more than a swirling soup of smog through which you can just about hear the sound of early morning commuters seeking to beat the rush and push into the city before the morning gridlock really kicks in. After swallowing a vitamin pill and downing a synthshake you jump into the shower and throw back your head into the luxury of the rust coloured water, which the filters have almost removed all of the staleness from. Then you suit up into your gasmask and all in one and head out to your car. The residue isn’t too bad this morning so you are off after about 15 minutes of scraping and coaxing. Unlike some of the ultra-commuters you only have to get as far as the main intersection for your job in the respiratory hospital. Another day of vacuuming lungs isn’t really too appealing. Maybe it is time to look for another job?

Future shock #2: The passive consumer society

Bleary eyed you reach out for a chocolate bar and unwrap while you search in the covers for the remote. The VideoNet kicks into life and you press the button to call up the latest news from Media Star 2050. It looks like Suzie got booted off last night but Karl somehow managed to hang onto his position. You shake your head and switch over to WorkChannel. After 30 minutes of data manipulation you’re ready for a break and are feeling a bit daring. You re-route through a remote server and connect to SocialTown the outlawed interaction site. After the government declared democracy to be “too expensive given the current need for fiscal restraint” they also took the decision to officially close down the internet. This meant that the only way to interact with people was face-to-face, however the current five-year wave of rioting has meant that only the brave or foolhardy go outside. You start to feel that it would be nice to talk to someone, just not today… and not until Media Star 2050 is over.

Future shock #3: The participatory democracy

Last night was a late one. You’d gone to the town hall to join the debate, but others had been connecting from their homes across the region to put their arguments and cast their votes

The decision to remove the Collective’s solar panels and replace them with a wind farm wasn’t an easy one. In the short term it was going to mean that Collective members were going to have to put in an extr
a hour a day to earn the credits to purchase the new power supply. You’d aligned yourself with the Long-termers and argued that it was better to take the hit now than in the future. However, the debate had eventually gone to the Short-termers with a concession to review it in a years’ time. This was one of the downsides to Collective democracy, it took time and effort and frustratingly you didn’t always get your way, but on the other hand you always got a say.

Anyway time to get off to work – today was a good one as you are teaching today. Tomorrow is your monthly sewer work rotation – not looking forward to that. But it is now only a week until you take your two month sabbatical and head off round the world.

Open your eyes

So how much responsibility does career guidance have for each of these future shocks?

How much fun would it be being a guidance practitioner in each of them?

How would your practice differ and where would your ethics lead you?

So what is the future of career guidance?

Well we know what it isn’t. It isn’t tools, it isn’t some magic black box that is going to sort out our problems for us. It isn’t guidance being delivered by robots or an alien invasion and it is all about people and the connections between them.

We also know that the future is political. It only exists as what you want to make happen and what you want to stop happening. We also know it is uncertain and that we can no more imagine the tools and spaces of the future than Frank Parsons could have imagined online careers advice and computer assisted guidance systems.

But, one thing that I’m sure of is that the future of the guidance profession will be shaped by the political space in which we find ourselves.

But I’m also certain that the future of guidance will be shaped by what we do, say and think.

It will be about re-conceiving guidance practice as the centre of our education system and guidance practitioners as its most skilled educators.

It should be about taking one giant leap beyond the close encounter and embracing a vast range of possibilities as spaces for career learning.

It should be about recognising that we explore our careers and learn alongside others in social spaces.

It should recognising the people operate in blended spaces which are at once online and offline.

It should offer people collective spaces to explore their problems as well as individual spaces.

And finally it should be transparently partial. And we should think seriously about what kind of future space – the practice of career guidance is taking us towards.

Is that enough future for you?



  1. "I could perform a detailed analysis of the positions taken by key members of the Career Professional Alliance during recent negotiations ??? uncovering their deepest political and psychological motivations " Tee Hee. Naughty Tristram! What is this CPA anyway? Seems to contain all the usual suspects.Is it an echo within the space-time fabric of an ICG in a parallel universe?Aim??To examine national and international contemporary developments taking place within the context of ‘professionalisation’ and to examine new possibilities for more dynamic social partnership arrangements between professionals, employers and governments.Keynote Presentation :John Hayes, Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong LearningRuth Spellman, Chair of the Careers Profession Alliance???New Careers Services; Renewing the Profession???Professionalisation (Renewing the Profession) : noun – Used by spin-meisters to place a positive gloss on the destruction of the careers profession in England by a bunch of mindless toffs. [See "bollocks"]

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