Careers, skills and local economic development

We are constantly reminded that we are operating in a global economy. Whatever the failings of the current and previous UK governments, we all recognise that they have been dealing with forces that are bigger than any one country. The failure of the banking system, the collapse of the Greek (and now Spanish) economy and so on, have been felt beyond national boundaries. However, it is important not to let a recognition of the global context turn into a fatalism which says that national government cannot achieve anything and that the actions we take locally are futile.

The majority of economic transactions take place at the local level. We buy things from local shops, engage local tradesmen to fix our houses and work in local firms. What is more we pay taxes to, vote for and have much of our services organised by local government. The global sets the context, the national level sets the framework within which we respond, but it is at the local level that the economy really happens.

Local is where businesses are built, where civil society exists, where we live, work, love, make families, consume and access services. What is more, the local is where we have some power to make change happen. It is difficult for us to do much about business in Greece, but we can influence policies and businesses in our back yard.

For individuals economic acts are local acts, but they are also career acts. When we consume, work, change jobs, vote or volunteer we are contributing to the local economy, but we are also contributing to our own career. Career is the mechanism through which individual acts are made meaningful and are connected up to wider narratives. I go to work in the morning, it is part of my career – I pursue my career to gain the good life for myself and my family – I seek for my family to live in a community that is safe, positive, interesting and diverse – I want my community to be economically sustainable, for this to happen it is important that others go to work in the morning. These ideas are linked, they all pull together and they are operationalised at the level of individual career. I can’t make a thriving local economy, but I can start a business. I can’t legislate for social justice but I can join a political party, pressure group or trade union.

For those who are interested in developing their local economy, career should be a central concept. Building roads and business parks can provide a different context for people to pursue their careers in, but these kinds of developments are expensive and have only patchy success at achieving real local transformation. However if you can influence the structures inside people’s heads and encourage them to engage with career in a serious way, you can shape the way that economic actors actually operate. If people were more engaged with learning and work, more entrepreneurial, if they had greater civic commitments and willingness to volunteer, then we would see greater local economic development.

The question is how to influence people’s career thinking and how to do it in a widespread enough to make an actual difference to local economies. As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, I’m not sure that the government’s current policies are particularly likely to bring this about. So, what is it possible to do? The following seem to me to be essential elements of an effective career development system.

  • Recognise that career development is about learning and the development of skills and not just about the provision of advice for decision making.
  • Put in place interventions to foster career learning at key transitions points (school, college, university, unemployment, redundancy and retirement).
  • But, also recognise that people learn about and develop their careers throughout life and so they need to be able to continue to learn about career whilst they are working, taking career breaks, recovering from illness etc.

If we are able to attend to these things, there is a good chance that people will be able to more actively manage their engagement with learning and work and maximise their potential. This is clearly good for the individual, but it is also the foundation stone of economic development – skilled individuals, making purposeful choices, finding the best place to apply their talents and accordingly contributing to the local, national and global economies.

This is why it is important to see career development as one of the major tools of local economic development.

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