Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Enhancing Choice? the role of technology in the career support market

UKCES, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills has published an interesting report on the role of technology in careers support. The report is authored by Tristram Hooley, Jo Hutchinson and Tony Watts.

The choice of the term "careers support" rather than "careers advice and guidance" is interesting, and the authors consider a wider cast of players, including friends, family, parents, tutors, alongside the professional adviser. Here's a brief summary of some of the key points from the research.

It is suggested that individuals can benefit from support and guidance on how to invest their "career capital" - i.e. the individual can maximise return on their talents, social and educational positioning. But with the complexity of education and career choices, it can be hard for an individual to do this without career support. Outcomes are not exclusively determined by career capital, but it is however an important factor.

The report asks whether technology can improve people's choice in the ways they access support, and also increase cost-effectiveness. At present career support services have a high profile with government, but policy makers are currently having to rethink delivery models in the light of scarce and reducing funds.

In the careers support market very few consumers of advice and guidance pay for what they receive. It's a complicated market with confusing entitlements and some instability in the organisations and institutions providing services. User understanding of what's available and how to access is increasingly dependent upon using the internet. This inevitably excludes or impedes access by some groups. The authors suggest digital literacy and search strategies of users are often poor. We need to consider digital literacy as a career management skill and focus on helping people raise skill levels.

International comparisons found only a limited niche market for the "individual pays" segment of the career support market. Where governments have withdrawn funding for services this has led to considerable reduction in availability of career support.

The authors find that ICT is changing the way career support is being provided, and has enabled new players to enter the market and achieve high penetration. ICT is being used to reduce the cost per user, reaching larger volumes in largely self-service web-based delivery modes. One of the arguments for encouraging people to use online resources and self-directed learning is that such activity makes face to face adviser sessions more effective, since clients arrive more prepared for their session.

Services like wikijob and Horsesmouth are cited as examples of sites which emphasise the value of collectivised knowledge and the input of non-professionals, rather than the expertise of qualified advisers.

There are basically 5 ways in which career support services are funded:

1) Government pays - but this tends to limit the scope for innovation, as services tend to be tightly defined in procurement processes.
2) Charitable body pays - more innovation and flexibility is possible but this can lead to problems of sustainability as funding dries up.
3) Individual Pays - a niche mainly confined to high income individuals seeking advice and support. A number of providers have attempted to sell e-books and career focussed apps to a broader audience, but have not yet found a viable market to individuals.
4) Opportunity Providers pay - for example recruiters - although there are some good sites like monster, with useful content, such providers tend to avoid the intensive and costly offer of personal support. The value in these sites is in the quality of content and frequency of update.
5) Embedded - for example within an education provider's offer to learners, or as part of an employer's offer to employees.

The report suggests further research is needed into how government could stimulate a hybrid model where both government and individuals contirbute to the cost of career support services, and the potential of apps in this marketplace.

Policy levers could also be applied to encourage employers and education providers to embed career support into their operational models. Government can influence the sector through quality assurance and regulation activities. Key outcomes of such intervention might be:

* The sector being encouraged to upskill career support practioners
* Development of protected status for career professionals
* A kitemark for quality career support web resources
* Provision of quality careers and labour market information through a single national portal
* More flexibility in service commissioning by the public sector, to encoruage provider innovation
* Provision of services to those unable to fund themselves

The report concludes by welcoming market development as offering a greater range of services, and the hope that consumers are well informed, with digital literacy skills enabling them to recoup maximum benefit from a diverse range of support. While government can shape, recommend and encourage market development, ultimately individuals are responsible for managing their own careers.

I think there is a long way to go in building digital literacy among professional practitioners before they could begin to help clients improve their digital literacy. Too often practitioners report organisational restrictions on internet use, but I think the issue goes deeper than this.

Some professional careers advisers remain blissfully ignorant of the best digital career support available. I recently delivered training to experienced advisers and many reported not knowing of such sites as icould, thestudentroom and horsesmouth. These are innovative, popular careers support sites which many of clients use already, or would certainly benefit from being signposted to.

It is hard to see how any professional adviser could help their clients to maximise their "career capital" without considering the potential of digital career support offerings, whether those be through contacts within social networks, the support of online mentors, or the collectivised online wisdom of peers.

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/smemon/