'The young need careers advice more than ever'

To reduce school-leavers' careers services in a shrinking jobs market would be madness, argues Deirdre Hughes
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The Independent Online

The careers profession is poised for radical change. The Coalition Government is expected to make a new announcement on the introduction of an all-age careers service for the UK. This presents a significant opportunity for renewal and redesign of fragmented careers provision. But do local authorities, schools and colleges share the ministers' vision? And if not, what are the potential consequences?

Even before the Comprehensive Spending Review, local authorities had embarked on cuts. The ferocity of widespread reductions of up to 50 per cent in Connexions (careers service) budgets in some parts of England – notably Norfolk, Surrey and in the North West – has already resulted in the demise of many local services. High-street centres are closing down, employment support activities for young people in the community are beginning to disappear and there are mounting concerns about the potential impact and effects on this year's school and college leavers.

All this makes it imperative that school leavers and graduates have access to the best possible advice. Ministers such as John Hayes, David Willetts and Vince Cable have articulated a strong desire for an improved careers service for individuals of all ages and abilities.

The CBI has said the lack of effective information and guidance prevents young people and those supporting them from making the best decisions at the key transition points in their education. They argue this not only carries a significant direct cost to the taxpayer, but also burdens employers with a heavy indirect cost, as a large proportion of young people leave education without the skills they need for employment.

Furthermore, Lord Browne in his recent review of higher education states: "Government has a responsibility to ensure that all pupils, in all types of school, have access to high-quality advice about the benefits of higher education and well-informed support to ensure that they are able to make the best choices". The demand for good quality careers information, advice and guidance is therefore escalating. But Government plans for raising individuals' aspirations, improving social mobility and harnessing talent could be hampered because of the severe cuts.

To help put things into perspective, in England each year more than two million Connexions and careers service interventions take place with young people in learning between April and August. A similar level of activity takes place supporting young people after they have left education.

These figures are significant as they play a key role in preventing young people from becoming NEETS Not in Education Employment and Training) and contributing to savings from the public purse. The National Audit Office report (2004) on Connexions concluded that for every one per cent reduction in the 16-18-year-old NEET numbers there are wider economic savings to the Exchequer of £165m. Any reduction in careers service support to young people in transition from 13-19 will inevitably result in higher numbers of young people post-16 becoming NEETs.

At the same time competition for university places is on the increase. We are unsure what the impact of the Government's proposed cap on university fees will be and the future of available apprenticeships for young people and adults is unclear. But what is clear is that all this only emphasises the increased need for better careers services.

Steps are being taken by Government to increase online information. Whilst this may provide a potentially low-cost solution it cannot replace one-to-one advice and guidance from a skilled professional. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development highlights the limitations of an approach focused solely on provision of information and a review in Canada (2002) indicated that the strategy for developing career and labour market information needed to include a network of skilled personal support.

Schools and colleges have been given greater autonomy by Government to develop their curriculum offer, which includes the provision of access to impartial careers information, advice and guidance. With pressure on budgets and increased expectations by ministers for more teachers to deliver that advice, the new proposed framework could potentially implode.

Teachers are being expected to be "a jack of all trades", which will not only impoverish the provision of careers advice but dilute time for teaching as a whole. Careers services, which are independent of learning providers, informed by the labour market and provided by specialist professional careers advisers offer a real solution in helping, challenging and supporting individuals to find their way through the education and employment maze.

So where is the careers profession heading? And what impact will all these changes have on the life chances of young people and adults? With an estimated half a million public-sector employees likely to be made redundant from their jobs in the next four years, increased numbers of people will want to have access to good-quality careers advice rather than leave things to chance. Ill-informed career decisions have consequences which, ultimately, impact not only on the individual but also on the national economy.

Trusting the professionals is one way of managing this, but policymakers must stay focused on ensuring new policies for all-age careers services result in improved rather than diminished services. Choices being made now will affect the future life chances of individuals throughout the country. It is critical that effective careers services are available to enable individuals to assess what abilities, skills and interests they have, and how they can best develop these through learning and work, both for their benefit and the nation's economic and social well-being.

Dr Deirdre Hughes is President of the Institute of Career Guidance and Associate Fellow at Warwick Institute for Employment Research.