Career guidance in school: how to make it work for your students

I had a piece in The Guardian today based on our State of the Nation research. In it I offer some advice on what schools could be doing to improve their careers programmes.

How are schools doing on careers advice for their students? This is the question we posed for the new State of the Nation 2017 report, published by The Careers & Enterprise Company. Our findings are based on 600 schools completing a self-assessment tool, giving us insights into their delivery of careers provision.

Read more


Thinking about Labour Market Information


I’ve been asked to facilitate a discussion today on the subject of labour market information (LMI). So I thought that I might use this post to set down a few thoughts on the subject.

At The Careers & Enterprise Company we’ve also been thinking about LMI from the perspective of schools over the last few weeks while we’ve been analysing data about schools’ ability to meet the Gatsby Benchmarks. What we’ve found is that only about a third of schools are providing LMI to young people and their parents in a timely and consistent way. So there is clearly some room for improvement on this.

I’ve written quite a bit about LMI on this site before so you may be interested to have a look through my back catalogue of thoughts about LMI. My colleague Jon Boys has also produced a really useful post on the variety of sources of LMI that are available. One of the things that Jon’s post demonstrates is that in England there is a huge amount of information available and lots of ways in which it is possible to access this information. So I don’t think that it is possible to argue that ‘we don’t know what is going on in the labour market’. Of course we could know more, but I think that the question is much more one about how we use information rather than about how we collect more information.

Definitions: As ever I suppose that it is useful to start with definitions. By ‘labour market information’ I mean all sorts of information that can help people to understand the labour market. When people normally talk about LMI they are usually talking about government produced quantitative information – which as I’ll go on to argue, is a bit too limited a definition for me. So one of the things that I’m keen to do is to broaden the way that people think about LMI. The other thing that I think we should do is to include information about learning opportunities within our definition of labour market information. This recognises that for example we might need information about what qualifications people usually need for jobs, but also information on what colleges or universities provide these qualifications and what their entry requirements are and how their processes of application work.

What do you want LMI for? One of the key challenges is to think about what want LMI for. I think that there are two major uses (1) for strategic economic planning – so that we can understand what is happening in the labour market and seek to address shortfalls or stimulate supply or demand. (2) for individual career planning – so that we can work out what qualifications to study, what jobs are available and what we might want to do next or in the future. We can use the same information for both, but the same information is not equally useful for both and it also doesn’t always get used in the same way. So for example we may have information about long term employment patterns which is very useful for economic planning, but far less useful for a job seeker who wants to know what jobs are available today?

How is the LMI produced? Again I think that there are two main answers to this question. (1) Government or research data which seeks to gain an overview of what is happening in the labour market e.g. the labour force survey. On the plus side this kind of information is consistent, often collected regularly and carefully managed to ensure its robustness and validity. On the negative side there is often a time lag between the period it describes and when it is analysed and available. (2) Naturally occurring LMI. This describes information that is made available for some other purpose. e.g. online job adverts that can give job seekers a really good idea about labour market demand. Increasingly there are tools (like recruitment sites, but also like Burning Glass) that allow us to aggregate naturally occurring LMI and draw broader conclusions from it.

What do you want information about? Labour market information includes a vast array of different things – for example we could include salary information, information about vacancy numbers, training and progression data and also things like travel to work distances and times (which means that things like bus timetables and traffic bulletins effectively become LMI). It is probably more helpful to think about specific questions rather than just to find sources of LMI.

What kind of information do you want? Are you looking for detailed statistical information or for more qualitative information. Stats are good for summarising data, but qualitative data (like icould) can provide more insights about how individuals navigate their way through the labour market. It is important to remember that all data (both statistics and narrative) are simplifications of reality and so it can be really useful to try and triangulate what LMI is telling you with other information.

How local do you want to go?  Labour markets are both highly local and entirely global. When we are looking at data it is important to think about what geography you are actually interested in looking at. For many people moving house or travelling over an hour to work will be a major decision. Of course it is valuable to think about what career possibilities might exist over the hill, but it is also critical to help people to think about what exists ’round here’.

Who is going to use the LMI? One of the challenges with LMI is that it is often presented with a ‘facts are facts’ shrug. But what LMI is useful is likely to be bound up with who is using it and for what. So is this a resource for teachers to incorporate in lessons, for parents to use or for young people to browse themselves. All of these possibilities raise different issues and suggest different kinds of LMI and presentation. This takes us onto our next question.

Will anyone actually use LMI? I think that in many ways the key question is how do you get anyone ever to actually use LMI. I think that we need to give this question much more thought. LMI does not offer simple answers to career questions. It is more of an ongoing process of understanding the world around you. How we develop LMI sensitive individuals is the critical question that we should be asking.

Hopefully these questions will help to shape our discussion later on. But I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on what the key issues with LMI are.


The Power

I suspect that a lot of people will have read The Power this summer. It is an ideal summer read. Easy and quick to read on the beach, but thought provoking enough to give you something to talk about over drinks in the evening. Our holiday group was a bit divided on it. I thought that it was pretty good, while others bemoaned poor writing and a lack of political subtlety. I thought that the writing was fine for the most part and its political message needs to be understood within the genre of dystopian satire (ie it is deliberately extreme to make a point).

For those of you who haven’t read it – I’ll try not to give away any huge #spoilers but, if you are worried about that sort of thing don’t read on. The Power asks the question what would happen to our world if women suddenly became universally physically stronger than men. In this case their strength takes the form of being able to shoot out painful electronic charges which bring about agony in men and which potentially allow women to control men in a range of direct and indirect ways.

The point of the book is essentially to argue that patriarchy is founded on physical violence. If you take the capacity for physical violence away then patriarchy collapses (and based on the book, collapses quickly). I thought that this was thought provoking stuff. While I see a lot of patriarchal power dynamics, they often seem to be quite a few steps away from actual physical violence. Patriarchy operates in both subtle (e.g. domestic assumptions and negotiations about who does the washing up) and less subtle (#everydaysexism) ways, but it is not always apparent (to me at least) that all of this is underpinned by the capacity for physical violence. Some of the women I’ve talked to were less surprised by this insight – which I suppose goes someway to proving the point.

However, The Power makes a pretty convincing case. If you suddenly offer a group of people (especially people who have been disempowered in some way) a new power then you can’t be surprised if they use it to try and even up the score. I’m sure that this offers some useful lessons for international relations as well as gender relations, but I’ll leave others to comment on that.

One of the things that is disappointing (but not necessarily unrealistic) about the way in which the story is told in The Power is that there are almost no women who stand out against the use of violence. Patriarchy is turned on its head but no lessons are learnt. Nobody behave better because they have been oppressed. Everyone is happy to either take up the mantle of oppression or stand by while others lead the charge. It is a thoroughly depressing book that offers little hope for humanity.

Sigh… these are the times that we live in I suppose. Hate has become the leitmotif of politics and policy and optimism is in short supply.

So, to turn to my usual theme – what does all of this have to do with careers. I’m reminded of Zizek’s work on violence. As with The Power he argues that we need to see violence as a key aspect of the political economy. The ability to inflict and cause violence (of various types – economic, symbolic and of course physical) is the critical underpinning of power. I think that this has a lot of relevance to the way in which we think about work and industrial relations. Power within education and employment offers some groups the opportunity to make or break people’s lives. If I give a student a failing mark I can render their investment in higher education void and dramatically reduce their earning power – literally taking the food off of their table. Is this not a kind of violence? Employers power (and capacity for violence) is even more direct. I guess this is why so many unions have campaigns on bullying which is essentially just another word for violence.

So I think that there is some interesting work and thinking to do on the subject of work, career, power and violence. I’m not sure when I’ll get round to this but it seems worth doing. Perhaps someone else has got some more to add to this…

Hillbilly Elegy


Over the summer I read JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. On one level the book is a fairly conventional rags to riches autobiographical story of the American dream. Despite humble ‘hillbilly’ beginnings JD manages to go to university and end up with a postgraduate law degree from Harvard. However, the book has been hailed as offering insights into Trump’s America (something that it does not overtly claim to do) and so merits a closer read.

As a career narrative the book functions as a fairly subtle discussion of the relationship between career and environment. The argument is made that growing up poor and white in a deindustrialising community in USA creates a significant barrier to the realisation of the American dream of upward mobility. However, the author is also fiercely critical of structuralist interpretations that shift blame entirely onto economic and labour market changes. The hillbilly diaspora of poor white working-class people has undoubtedly experienced some bad economic breaks, but the book argues that they have responded to these changes badly, taking refuge in drink, drugs and the blaming of others. While he has a number of policy ideas about how this situation could be addressed he is also arguing for some cultural changes within his community.

His own story of social mobility is carefully handled. Although JD is clearly a pretty outstanding student, soldier (he spends a few years in the Marines) and now lawyer, he argues that it is not his ability, drive or ambition that accounts for his ability to transcend his background and outperform the expectations of those around him. One of the most interesting themes in the book is what it is he feels can enable (or disable) social mobility. He doesn’t offer simplistic answers, but broadly he argues that there is a need for supportive extended families and communities in geographical proximity with each other which can pick up the slack when parents fail to cope. The book largely operates on this meso level, arguing that we need to look beyond the individual but that the direct involvement of the state often creates more problems than it solves.

I’m not sure that I agree with JD’s analysis, his (moderate) Republican politics come through fairly clearly and I think leave him overly negative about the role of the state. Personally, I think that there needs to be some balance between family, community and professionalised state structures in the raising, educating and career developing of young people. But, I can see how he comes to that conclusion out of his own story and recognise that sometimes the tensions between these different sources of support aren’t well resolved.

Perhaps more importantly many of the social ills that JD Vance attributes to both the white working class and to the state are exactly the sort of things that Donald Trump made his political capital out of. Vance is a considerably more thoughtful, consistent and even-handed commentator than Trump, but the feeling that there are large areas and communities in the USA that aren’t working for anyone is a powerful one.

Vance’s book gives us some insights into this world and helps us to understand, empathise and consider the complexity of solving some of these issues. It is well worth a read.

Gender and apprenticeships

Female Construction Apprentice

I’m excited about the future of vocational education. There is so much going on right now with the T-levels and the apprenticeship levy. There is at least a possibility that we are seeing a serious step forwards in vocational education in England at the moment. What is more, I’m pretty sure that this is a cross-party issue and so even if we do see a change in government the focus on vocational education and skills is likely to endure.

However, there are some things that are concerning about the way that vocational education tends to channel certain young people into certain careers. There is clearly a strong class dimension to this, which I’m also interested in, but in this post I’d like to look at the issue of gender.

A joint TUC and YWCA paper (Apprenticeships and Gender) published a few years ago concluded that the expansion in apprenticeships had replicated traditional gender segregation in the labour market. More recent work by the Young Women’s Trust (Making Apprenticeships Work for Young Women) notes that since 2010 women apprentices have outnumbered men, but that male apprentices get paid 21% more on average.

The Young Women’s Trust presents the following chart to show how male and female apprenticeships differ by sector.

gender differences

What it shows is that women are concentrated in health and social care, business administration and childcare and education. In contrast male apprentices are present in a lot more sectors and have less of a profile in these traditionally low paying sectors.

These differences play out in terms of pay, but they also play out in terms of job quality with female apprentices less likely to report training and more likely to lose their job at the end of the apprenticeship.

All of this is very concerning, but not in all honesty completely unexpected. Similar issues have been reported in the past (as this 2006 article by the Equal Opportunities commission shows). Inevitably the reasons for this phenomenon are complex. It undoubtedly includes a dose of good old fashioned sexism, but the associations of gender with particular parts of the labour market are more complex than this. They undoubtedly include questions about self- and career- identity in young people. How far they can imagine themselves in different careers. They also clearly relate to employer expectations and to the ever questionable idea of ‘cultural fit’. ‘Someone like her just wouldn’t fit in here‘ is a much used excuse.

I don’t have any easy answers as to what it is possible to do about this. But what I am sure is that achieving any change on this issue will require shifts on both the supply and demand side of the labour market. We need both young people and employers to think and act differently. It will also require changes pre-, during, and post- vocational education programme. In other words people need to be recruited differently, supported better whilst on programme and then given ongoing support to transition to the labour market. All of these changes need to be actively alert to gender rather than simply trying to be ‘gender neutral’ – delivering a major cultural change is not going to be easy.

I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts about how they deal with some of these issues in career education and guidance processes.



Show me what you’re made of

I don’t know whether anyone else has seen Stacey Dooley’s Show Me What You’re Made Of? In each episode Stacey takes a bunch of kids and shows them the work that underpins some everyday aspect of their life. In the one that I’ve linked to in this post they learn about how buses are cleaned, but elsewhere they learn about fruit picking, fish canning and a whole host of other undesirable jobs.

This is work experience with a difference. The idea here is not to offer up ‘aspirational’ job, rather it is the opposite. But, these occupations aren’t just being profiled to show young people what could happen if things go wrong. Rather these difficult, dirty and challenging jobs are profiled to demonstrate that all of our lives rely on these things getting done. The show is brilliant for demonstrating the skill and dignity that is associated with difficult work.

I think that Show Me What You’re Made Of offers a brilliant resource for career education. It provides an insight into real work in ways that show both the positives and the negatives. It also opens up space for important discussions about how work is organised and rewarded in our society and also how workers are accorded respect or otherwise for doing important things.

I’d be really interested to hear from any teachers or careers educators who have used it with learners.

Guest post: What is the gig economy?


In this guest post Esther Galvalvi discussed the growth of the gig economy. I’d urge people to get involved with her important research in this area.

The media has tended to use the term “gig economy” to refer to digital platforms like Uber, Deliveroo, and Taskrabbit, where people can work on a short term, free lance basis through apps on their phones.  However, any online platform that allows people to participate in commerce, where people can opt in and opt out at will (on a “gig” basis), could be thought of as belonging to the gig economy.  People are busily making work for themselves on platforms like Ebay, Etsy, and Airbnb, effectively acting as their own employers.  (Different rules apply to Ebay and Etsy, however; no one is checking when you clock in, or how fast you respond; labour platforms like Uber and Deliveroo tend to control worker behaviour a lot more.) 

People involved in platform work find themselves at the crest of a wave of exciting new technology that could afford a great deal of flexibility and freedom – but risk being dragged under by the lack of security and worker protections.  On a policy level, some clear decision-making will be critical to make sure that the people who work on them have a reasonable safety net to protect them in times of difficulty. 

All this is a challenge for careers advisers, because we are learning about these new technologies at the same time that people are being exposed to them.  Young people in particular are at the forefront of the wave; a large proportion of workers in the UK gig economy are under 35.  Gig economy work could afford them a great deal of flexibility and opportunity if they are struggling to fund further education, or want a boost to their CV.  But with so much at stake with their exams, the cost for young people could be high if they overdo it

It is unfeasible for careers advisers to know the ins and outs of every platform, but we should at least know roughly how platforms work and what the key issues are, both in terms of risks and opportunities.  These could include

  • worker rights law
  • time management
  • how to critically evaluate platforms and their practices
  • depending on the platform, the basic skills to build a business 

My PhD project at University of Derby is about young people’s involvement in the online gig economy.  I want to find out to what extent young people are already thinking about or even using these technologies – and if they are using anything we haven’t even thought about yet!  The first phase is a survey of careers professionals who work with 16-19 year olds.  If you belong in this group, I would be grateful if you could take 10 minutes to fill it in.

Complete the survey