An interesting (but strangely anti-careers) article from Charlie Ball in the Guardian

I’ve known Charlie Ball for years. He actually spoke at what was probably the first event I went to that got me really excited about careers – so he shares at least some of the blame for getting me into this line of work. He is pretty much my go-to graduate labour market data geek (this is a complement from me as I’m happy to call myself a career development policy geek). So I’m always interested in what he’s got to say about all things relating to careers and the labour market.

Charlie wrote an interesting article in today’s Guardian responding to some new research from the Education and Employers Taskforce. The report is an interesting one as it finds that young people’s career aspirations are out of kilter with the labour market opportunities that are out there. Charlie says OK, but <data geek>are they using their SOC codes correctly?</data geek> and <justified skepticism>labour market predictions are always wrong anyway so we’d be wise not to get too hung up about this sort of thing.</justified skepticism> He also makes the important point that there is huge social and political pressure for young people to be aspirational (stand up Michael Gove and your adoration of the Russel Group) and given this it is hardly surprising if career aspirations tend to be inflated and not fully correspond to the labour market.

Charlie then goes on to finish with a broad point that I agree with. There isn’t too much point in trying to match individuals to jobs. Both individuals and the labour market are too complex and ever changing for that. It is far better to develop a system that supports individuals to be more flexible and to effectively manage their careers across a dynamic labour market. As he puts it…

We have a good, flexible education system in this country, particularly in higher education. You can take a physics degree, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a physicist.

But Charlie then goes on to say…

And while effective careers advice is a good idea, do we really want 18 year-olds to be set on a firm career path already? I’m not sure that’s a good idea in a rapidly-changing jobs market, when they’ll still be working 50 years from now.

Which for me misses the point of what careers advice and other forms of career development set out to do. Career development doesn’t just try and match people up to labour market opportunities. Nor is it in the business of telling young people that they have to choose a job for life. If you listen to careers people they are endlessly harping on about the changing labour market and the need to be adaptable. Career development, at its most effective, is about developing the career management and employability skills that support engagement in lifelong learning and a dynamic labour market. The kind of flexible education system that Charlie is describing should really have career development at its heart if we want people to emerge from the education system ready to suffer the slings and arrows of a complex world.

So I’d agree with Charlie that there is no point is worrying too much about whether aspiration ties up exactly with opportunity. What we need is education and career development that enables young people to own their aspirations and adapt them to the opportunities that they discover once they move into work.



  1. Fair points Tristram – it’s always a difficult task to condense complex arguments into 800 words with a deadline and it looks like I haven’t quite pulled it off here.

    The original piece (when it was about 1,200 words) made the point that this sort of research *always* calls for more and better careers advice and development. It is the ‘motherhood and apple pie’ of papers on education – especially so when the organisations involved are careers-oriented already. Everybody always agrees. And it can be used to prop up essentially rather thin papers, as it has in this case.

    The slant that I take in these pieces, is ‘is this a good piece of research? How do we conduct this kind of work? Is the conclusion merited?’

    What I was trying to get at is that actually, the conclusion isn’t necessarily merited from that particular data – unless you think that all careers research inevitably comes to the conclusion that we need more and better careers advice without really being clear what form those interventions could take and what their substance should be.

  2. There are a number of issues here aren’t there.
    1) Is there a mismatch between young people’s aspirations and the labour market. This article says yes. I’d tend to agree, but I accept some of your methodological concerns.

    2) Is a mismatch necessarily a bad thing. I think that we’d both agree that it isn’t. However I think that in the absence of any alternative understanding about the labour market it can be problematic. So it is good to have aspirations as long as you understand that they may and probably will have to change. If you believe that your teenaged aspiration must be fulfilled come what may then it is likely that you may be disappointed. I think that we are both arguing that it is more important to educate a generation who understand the range of labour market opportunities and the way in which careers work than it is to ensure a match between aspirations and opportunities.

    3) Can career development support people to engage positively with these issues. Again I think that we would both say yes. My concern is that career development/guidance/advice doesn’t get boxed into being simply about matching aspirations to opportunities. The kind of career development that I think that we need in the education system is one which helps young people to understand these complexities and recognise the need to research opportunities and to change and adapt their careers and aspirations in response to what they discover.

  3. Yes, quite.

    At point 2, I think some parts of the policy and education system are quite comfortable with the idea that there are no longer jobs for life in a conventional sense and that young people can expect multiple career changes, but have not come to terms with the implications for education, training and guidance.

    This paper is a symptom of that, in that it seems to be saying that young people don’t have the ‘right’ aspirations for their career, that this is a problem, and that it needs to be fixed.

    I am not sure that it’s reasonable – or even appropriate – to expect 18 year olds to know what job they want to do. Of course, if they want to be doctors, for example, they need to have essentially made that choice already, and that troubles me. So, I don’t see that there’s a bug here. I think that, when you consider how flexible our education system can be, it’s a feature. But it requires a certain approach, particularly to the careers information we provide.

    The obverse is that even if we stress to young people that they don’t have to have made their mind up yet – and that’s ok – some will be sure (or think they are) that they know what to do and will want appropriate guidance.

    The information challenges inherent in a system of careers development support geared around equipping people for a rapidly-changing, complex workplace are, of course, significant.

  4. For me the debate suggests that careers work needs to be broadened to incorporate a sociological/anthroplogical underpinnings for KS2/3/4, to sit in-front of more psychology driven frameworks and tools used in guidance contexts at KS4 and post 16. In other words, starting the careers education process with less focus on the individual student, and more on stereotyping and context, within which employments trends are explored also. At the moment it feels like the discipline’s owns intellectual boundaries have made it very difficult to make strong case for statutory careers education in the earlier years where it’s neede most, as the tools used are still very fixed on matching paradigms, with cruel irony that while there is no cash left for guidance, matching tools may be all that remains in some schools. Not a great legacy. I see this as a core challenge for the careers community that may quietly underpin the weakening of policy around CEIAG work in schools. Be good to know what people think about this..

  5. Shirley Williams, when a Labour Minister, likened Manpower Planning to ‘steering with a rubber tiller’; that’s why skills shortages occur, causing bottlenecks in the labour market. As a careers adviser I obviously don’t like the idea of trying to ‘push’ students towards jobs that they’re not suited for but then again, I despair when hearing that we continue to train far too many hairdressers! (LGA report). Let’s hope that the STEM initiative encourages more young people to consider science sector options…

  6. “If you listen to careers people endlessly harping on about the changing labour market and the need to be adaptable” – not me Tristram! In my current post 100% of students go off to university somewhere around the world; is it too idealistic to focus on dreams, self-actualisation when guiding young people…? for me focusing in on available opportunities in the market is immensely depressing, for those just finishing secondary education; shouldn’t we consider who we are at our core being, discover it, and then see where it leads into the workplace? Why should we, as counselors, encourage the moulding of a person to the workplace before they even get a chance to discover themselves? It seems a very industrial approach.

    If we want real adaptability from more graduates why not follow the American liberal arts university system – 2 years of broad study (very broad!) before a focus on the major?

  7. The media coverage of the report was useful in hopefully adding to the chorus of disapproval of government policy on careers education and guidance. In that sense whether the research was rogorous or not isnt something to get in a sweat about. If it adds to the pressure on ministers to change direction then I say bring it on! I’m fairly certain that the Education and Employers Taskforce commissioned the research for political lobbying purposes rather than academic ones. Almost all the research reports publicised in the media have an underlying agenda that isnt difficult to discern.

    One thing that troubles me about the above discussion is the notion that CEG is (or should be) purely about developing thinking skills around career issues. Actually many/most young people are woefully ignorant about the different education/training/employment options available to them and one of the great contributions to society of careers advice is (or rather was) empowering young people (and their parents) by giving them the factual information to which they can then apply their decision making skills.

    Another troubling thing is the implied assumption that the young people we are talking about are heading inexorably towards university. I’m not sure your rather airy disregard for the realities of local labour markets would go down very well with a working class family with a Year 11 child of moderate academic ability who is facing the possibility of becoming yet another government NEET statistic. In that situation isnt trying to match individuals to jobs (or apprenticeships or FE courses) a very useful activity? That is what we careers advisers used to do (before we were written off) day in and day out with the young people we worked with and it was the buzz we got when we succeeded that made the job rewarding.

  8. Interesting points Chris. You talk about the troubling notion that CEG is about developing thinking skills around career and then go onto suggest that we need to provide young people and their parents with factual information. Unfortunately “factual” information isn’t always that straightforward. We need to think about the information that we are given and work out what to do with it. What is more if we don’t think about the information we are very unlikely to incorporate it into our decision making.

    I don’t agree that I (or Charlie for that matter) have an airy disregard for the labour market. I think that an important role that career professionals can play is the brokerage one that you describe. However in reality this is rarely the case any more. Career professionals rarely have the time to do much work with local employers – we need to make this a priority and something that is supported in policy. However, matching someone to a job is not the same as a career. It is a good start, but it is better if that young person enters their first job with an idea about how they might use it to progress and a recognition that they might experience change as the labour market moves. This all takes us back to the importance of thinking skills.

    • All fair points Tristram. I dont think that you have such an airy disregard for labour market realities but just felt the discussion was implicitly focused on high achievers who might grasp what you were on about if you said “today kids we’re going to be looking at developing your thinking skills!”

      Just to be clear, I wasnt talking about “matching” young people to opportunities (important help though that is) when I said “…one of the great contributions to society of careers advice is (or rather was) empowering young people (and their parents) by giving them the factual information to which they can then apply their decision making skills.”

  9. Before my teaching career I was a personal adviser for 3 years in Tottenham in the 25+ employment zone run by Reed-In-Partnership. The clients we were working with were often in a very bad state and had all been on job seekers allowance for over a year. We had this very interesting training by a US welfare guru Deborah Angel (who went on to train Careers Guidance Scotland as far as I know), who had great success with helping the longterm unemployed in inner-city New York. Their work was classically American in terms of building the”dream”, after sufficient work with clients the first stage was to find a career entry post in the field of interest, with an understanding of transition through a subsequent career towards the goal/dream; working on the basis that even though a certain entry level job might not be that desirable, it had a purpose towards the goal, and was more likely to be tolerated.

    My point about dreams and self-actualisation relates to any activity, with equal status given to any role, as long as it their personal dream; so the baker or the workshop engineer, or farmer is just as valid as a goal connected to university education. What I am very much against is entrapment into employment, through matching people into a job, without the vision of the longterm goal – of where the current post might lead to, which I agree goes back to the thinking skills Tristram! A member of my family went to grammar school, then horticultural college and subsequently herded/milked cows very happily for 40 years! Upon retirement they have 2 pet cows! My grate gripe is with the media and the status anxiety it induces, and the sense that some vocations are less valid, damaging the esteem created through association with working class professions – this needs to be aggressively challenged by schools and careers advisers – surely unless it’s confronted it won’t change?

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