New technologies and social mobility (where does career guidance fit in?)

Yesterday I attended a very interesting RSA discussion on new technologies and social mobility. I encountered a lot of interesting new ideas about the relationship between new technologies, social mobility online learning and online career building. This included some stuff about whether new technologies lower the threshold for entrepreneurialism and self-employment that I really need to give some more thought to. We also went over some familiar ground about whether we are living with a generation of digital natives (I say NO), whether MOOCs are just hype (I say YES) and whether there is a technofix to social and political problems (NO, NO and THRICE NO). Anyway in the aftermath I thought that it might be useful for me to set down a few of my ideas on this subject.

I think that the first point that I would want to make is that the provision of career support is an important part of the social mobility toolkit. Next week we will be releasing some research for the Sutton Trust which will argue that there is a strong alignment between the policy goal of social mobility and career guidance. In essence social mobility is about individual’s abilities to successfully pursue their careers and career guidance is about providing them with support to do this. Career guidance is both an individual and a social good: it helps individuals to progress in their learning and work, but it also helps the effective functioning of the labour and learning markets and contributes to a range of social policy goals.

We argue that career guidance can support social mobility in the following ways.

  • Provide access to information and intelligence about the labour and learning markets in ways that transcend existing social networks.
  • Demystify labour and learning market systems and support individuals to understand progression pathways and manage transition processes such as university or apprenticeship applications, the creation of CVs and recruitment interviews.
  • Engage with individuals’ assumptions about themselves and the world around them, informing and challenging them.
  • Listen to individuals’ aspirations and help them to operationalise these as well as considering alternatives.
  • Build the skills that people need to make decisions and transitions and to progress in their career (career management skills).
  • Broker access to networks beyond the ones that individuals normally have access to.
  • Provide mentoring and support to encourage persistence and remaining resilient in the face of setbacks.

Given this it is likely that an element of career support should be part of any strategy around social mobility. However, as readers of this blog will know, the government has substantially reduced funding for career guidance for young people which in turn has led to a considerable decline in the quality of provision in schools and colleges. There was originally some discussion that this decline in the amount of face-to-face service provision would be addressed through an increase in the provision of online support. However, so far government funding for online career support has been extremely limited and it has not seriously engaged with the offer that exists in the private sector to consider how this could best be harnessed (see my post from 2011 called the Government don’t love careers websites either).

In Careering Through the Web we argued that it was possible for online technologies should be seen as an important part of career support. We noted that they could play three roles in the provision of career support:

  1. The provision of information and resources
  2. The provision of automated interactions which used artificial intelligence to do some of the jobs that were previously done by careers advisers
  3. The provision of tools for communication which could facilitate communication with careers advisers, employers, peers and wider kinds of personal and professional networks.

Four years later the range of practice that exists in relation to each of these three categories has grown. However there has been little attempt by government or any other stakeholders to map this milieu or to consider what role government could play in relation to this.

In Enhancing Choice we argued that government should not seek to create a single careers website or web solution, but should rather oversee the development of the market in online career support. In essence this would involve three main roles:

  1. Stimulating the market by encouraging the development of new services and new types of resources.
  2. Quality assuring the market to increase citizen confidence in the career support that they can access online.
  3. Compensating for market failure by resourcing services that address key policy concerns (such as social mobility) but which the market is unlikely to meet on its own.

It is hoped that this offers a framework within which public policy actions in this area could be located.

However, it is also important to recognise that individual’s engagement with online career support is dependent on the skills that they have to utilise the internet. It would be possible to engage in an extended academic debate about whether these are new “digital skills” or whether they are often just the same old career management and employability skills resituated in a new context. For what it is worth I tend to come down on the latter, but in a sense it doesn’t matter, if individuals are going to make the most of the online context they will need to learn how to do this. Despite the fanfare of the approach of the digital native there is no evidence that suggests that young people find it easier than any of the rest of us to think about how best to use the internet for learning, work and building a career. This stuff needs to be learnt, it may be learnt by trial and error, but it still needs to be learnt.

I have developed the 7 Cs of digital career literacy (set out in How the internet changed career and Building online employability). These 7 skills are designed to offer a framework for action for educators who want to support people to develop their ability to use the online environment for career building. However, while such interventions have the potential to support social mobility, this will only be the case if they are available to people from all backgrounds and across the attainment spectrum. If it is going to support social mobility, it is important that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds have access to at least as much career support as those from higher socio-economic backgrounds and that there is a concerted effort to support everyone to develop the skills that they need to pursue their careers online.

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