Many students, who are normally advised to talk to their careers service in their second year, do not recognise the value of early contact or the counselling available to them. Tom Snow, director of the Oxford University Careers Service, says: 'We are teaching people how to choose a career. This is a process they need to carry around with them as their careers develop through their lives. Whether students understand this role is not certain.'
Careers services have a dual purpose: to counsel and inform students, and to assist employers with their graduate recruitment; for example, by organising careers fairs, talks and employer presentations during the 'milkround'. The range of work they do is constantly widening in spite of serious financial restraints.
As Mr Snow points out, the careers service role has changed enormously over the past couple of decades. They mostly started as 'appointments boards', providing job information primarily on teaching and the Civil Service. But, he says: 'Since the war, the role of the services has expanded to cover all fields of employment. As graduate numbers have increased, it's been recognised that people don't really know what they want, so we've moved more to a careers advisory role.' During the recession, this has included counselling on how to cope with a depressed graduate market.
'Even if we've taken people through their personal skills and matched them to careers, as a result of the recession we have no jobs. The careers services need to get graduates to realise they may have to go through some intermediate steps before they start work - perhaps some additional training, getting some work experience, perhaps, by doing some manual or clerical work, and so on - and thus gain credibility with employers.'
According to the annual MORI survey of final- year undergraduates, 80 per cent of the 1,024 interviewed in 1992 had used their career service. The survey asked which two or three of 22 given sources were most helpful in determining the type of career field that interested them. Only 17 per cent cited their talk with a career officer: it ranked seventh, after work experience, talking to people working in their chosen field, talking to fellow students, advice from parents and family, recruitment brochures and talking to academic staff.
Students find talking to a careers officer most useful when evaluating whether jobs are available in their chosen field. Only careers directories, which are normally distributed by the careers services, rated marginally higher. Eleven per cent of students saw talking to career officers as useful for finding more detailed information on specific employers. Several sources, notably recruitment brochures and careers directories, were more highly rated.
Careers advisers are having to cope with many changes in the graduate employment market, based on such factors as widening access to higher education, the massive restructuring of the employment market in the past 15 years, and debt-laden graduates. The work they do needs expertise and sensitivity and, though they do not require any formal qualifications, in recent years the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) has run training courses for career advisers already employed in this work.
The first postgraduate courses aimed specifically at providing careers advisers in higher education with an accredited professional qualification are about to be run by the Department of Community Studies at the University of Reading. They are for those already employed in higher education careers services, not for would-be entrants, and will be run on a modular part-time basis over two to five years at two levels, entry depending on previous relevant experience. One course leads to the Certificate, the other the Diploma in Careers Work in Higher Education. Those taking the certificate course can subsequently study for the diploma.
The Reading courses were proposed by AGCAS. Clare Ford, the course tutor, says that the association 'very much felt that it wanted professional qualifications validated by an external body'.
Most careers services provide an excellent service, and the counselling abilities of advisers are high. Some services, however, have been criticised for behaving like 'politically correct' nannies, refusing to handle information or visits from employers in defence and nuclear-related industries. Most now handle employer information impartially and allow students to make their own choices, but a handful of careers advisers still do little to hide their disapproval of private-sector industry and commerce.
Employers have also voiced frustration at the inefficiency caused by careers services failing to adopt similar policies. They are, for example, inefficient in the way they charge employers for the use of their facilities for recruitment visits and related activities.
A rare note of exasperation was sounded in the June issue of Janus, the Association of Graduate Recruiters' newsletter. It wanted to publish a consolidated statement of careers services' charges, only to find that even AGCAS had found 'some members are not prepared to reveal their charges . . .' The article concluded: 'It seems pointless for Janus to continue with this project as it seems likely to produce more heat than light.' Since employers will be asked to pay in the end, such secrecy seems bizarre.