We need to start using the C word! Why career guidance needs to be at the heart of our response to Covid-19

This post first appeared on the Institute of Employment Studies blog on the 25th June.

We are, as research from the Institute for Employment Studies shows, in the middle of one of the biggest employment crises in living memory. But, it is one thing to interpret the world and quite another thing to change it. Thankfully, a consensus is emerging about what needs to be done to help the UK to weather the storm of Covid-19.

In a recent blog, Tony Wilson set out some of the key elements that are needed to avoid a massive collapse in employment. These include one-to-one support for unemployed people, work experience, training, financial support and health support. The exact mix of employer subsidy, intermediate labour markets, training, benefits and wider support that is needed is still being debated, but what is clear is that a meaningful response to the crisis needs to be multi-faceted and substantial.

Why career matters in times of crisis?

It might be tempting to view career as a luxury that can wait until after we’ve solved the acute employment crises. For some ‘career’ becomes an undesirable ‘C-word’ that mustn’t be uttered while you are discussing the immediate need for jobs. But this kind of short term thinking makes for bad policy as it misses the complexity of how people’s lives work. Career describes the individual’s passage through life, learning and work. It is how we connect our current situation to our desired future. It is also where our individual aspirations meet both labour market conditions and social institutions.

The pandemic raises all sorts of career issues for people. These range from concerns about survival (how will I pay the bills and put food on the table?) to more philosophical and existential concerns (what is it all for? why do I do the things that I do?). In the middle of this spectrum is the fact that the lockdown has changed many of our daily lives and routines, prompting us to think about what we want to hold on to, and let go of, from our old lives.

The idea of career recognises that people are not just engaged in a single employment transaction, in a single moment, but rather in the process of creating a life day by day and choice by choice. Divorcing a decision as important as what course you are going to study or job you are going to apply for, from your long-term aspirations, takes away much of what motivates people to act. Conversely, recognising the existence of career as a lifetime project links with all sorts of policy drivers including a desire that people should contribute productively to economy and the world around them, maintain their health and wellbeing, support their families, increase their skills and be an active citizen.

Putting career guidance at the heart of policy responses

Ideas about how individuals build their careers in the context of wider public policy are currently seen in sharp relief by those caught in the middle of the labour market collapse. From July many young people will be leaving the education system, looking for work. From August employers will start to make a proportion of their furloughed workers redundant, meanwhile businesses that have been struggling under the lockdown conditions will be failing. As a result millions of people will find that their career plans are in disarray.

If we are going to put in place the kinds of labour market support interventions that I’ve mentioned, there are going to be major challenges in ensuring that people know what opportunities exists, feel confident that these opportunities are legitimate and useful and that they are able to connect their participation in any one of these to their long term aims. For example, imagine having recently lost your job and trying to decide between enrolling on a course, taking up a short-term internship or settling for a low paid job. You would probably want to talk to someone about which of these options might be best for you in both the short and long term. This process of helping individuals to make career choices, especially in the middle of a pandemic and recession, is a skilled one best delivered by professionals.

In a recent paper, a collection of international bodies including the OECD and the International Labour Organisation, defined career guidance as ‘services which help people of any age to manage their careers and to make the educational, training and occupational choices that are right for them’. They conclude that such services are necessary and that they ‘act as a lubricant for developing and nurturing human talent to power innovation, creativity and competitiveness’ and that ‘the majority of high quality evaluations of career guidance activities show evidence of positive economic, educational and social outcomes’. Thankfully, the UK has an array of career guidance services and professionals through which this activity is currently delivered.

Working with the Career Development Policy Group, I have set out a new plan for career guidance in England to address Covid-19. In the short-term it argues that there is a need to quickly direct additional funding through the existing career guidance infrastructure (e.g. the National Careers Service and the Careers & Enterprise Company in England) to give education leavers, unemployed workers and those being made redundant an opportunity to see a career guidance professional between now and the end of 2020.

In the medium-term the infrastructure for career guidance needs to be enhanced. Career guidance needs to be more deeply embedded in the education and employment system, so that in the long run there is a clear lifelong entitlement to career support.

Final thoughts

As we face the crisis we should be thinking about more than shunting people into jobs. We need to offer people hope that they can progress in their life, improve their employment and gain some autonomy over their life choices. The concept of career puts these ideas front and centre, while the UK’s career guidance services and professionals provide an important mechanism for achieving this. 

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