OF THE UNEXPECTED
seeing and believing in careers work
is unreasonable to expect ideas - first developed in the early twentieth-century
- to map our course into the twenty-first. Connexions, in particular,
demands serious new thinking - new ways of understanding contemporary
career, its obstacles and its possibilities.
This article suggests that we are not seeing what is important,
because we have been led not to expect to see it.
If that really is happening, there will be no short route to correcting
the problem. But, the author suggests, looking again at our clients
stories, will help a lot.
Seeing, they say, is believing. Sounds like
hard-headed common sense... you might think? But any thoughtful
driver knows that we all have this amazing ability - not
to see what we dont expect to see. And you can go on
not seeing it - until you crash into it. Insurance claim forms have
been known to contain remarks along the lines - but those
milk crates were not supposed to be there! - not
believing is not seeing. Its why we need vehicle insurance.
Careers work could also be on a crash course. Careers workers can
have a clear and precise idea of what to expect on the career-management
road. They have learned to look for people...
... finding information, on self and work;
... making decisions which carry abilities and interests into their
... getting themselves through search-and-application procedure.
It seems like enough to pay attention to. What more could there
What do you notice here?
So whats it to be then Sarah? Retail management
training - thats the stuff youve been looking at,
And youve got the application forms?
Yes - and I can deal with them.
The college will start short-listing soon. Youd
better get on with it.
I will... I will.
Look Sarah, weve been over this pretty thoroughly
havent we? You picked out "retail-management training"
from the computer print-out. Youve agreed it suits your
skills and qualifications...
Hes right of course. All her career lessons and interviews
and library work and work experience and
progress-file work - all have pointed her this way. She knows
shes in with a pretty good chance. She can learn this job
- her mum did. She may even enjoy it - its certainly better
than working in a call centre, like her nerd-of-a-brother.
Reminding her that hes still there. ...So? Sarah'.
"Its just that... Oh! its nothing. Youre right.
Sarah retreats into her thoughts. Its just what? Is it that
most of her friends will go on to some college course or other?
That her boyfriend makes her feel bad about going away to university?
- they both know shell meet somebody else. That her mums
partner thinks academic learning is a waste of her time - and
On the other hand, is that that her geeky teachers think shes
ill advised to give up on a decent university place?
That her mum once let slip that she woke up on the morning of
her own twenty-eighth birthday, wondering whatever made her think
that high-street shop manager was such a good idea? That her Dad
- a qualified engineering technician - was declared redundant,
and lost his marriage to the stress? He always told mum he was
worth more - saying hell get an engineering degree. But,
as mum often says, he was all talk!.
No point in hoping for too much, and being defeated - like Dad.
And, anyway, she has never ever met a woman communication-technology
engineer. What can they be like? And where did she get the idea
anyway? Was it some Keanu Reeves film? Poor old dad.
And then theres her linked-arm-and-laughing friend, always
saying For crying-out-loud kid! If its what you want
- just do it!
Her interviewer has finished checking that hes done a
good job. (A realistic decision has been made on the basis of
accurate, objective, up-to-date and stereotype-free information.
What more could there be?)
Sarah is happy for him - no, really she muses, somebody
should be getting what they need from this interview. She
has nothing more to say to him; and he has stopped asking. And,
anyway, shes not sure she would know what to say. So, she
tells herself, Nobody has done anything wrong Sarah. Everything
is fine. Just sign the stupid form - and stop worrying about it!.
Sarahs not academically brilliant, but if she wants to learn
something theres not much that can stop her. Its not how
do I do it? thats bugging her, its why would
But we can sympathise with her interviewer. He needs to know that
hes done all he can. And he probably has. Sarah has applications
forms coming out of her ears. She could paper her walls with worksheets
and computer prints-outs. Her progress file describes a perfect
match for retail management: alert, cooperative, looks good. And
it took him a long time to get that dress-shop placement.
But suppose - after all that - he were to ask an open question...
...can you remember what made you pick out retail management
from the computers list...?
...before you saw the list, what ideas of your own did
...you seem troubled, Sarah...?
There's no cut-and-dried response to any of this: no list of pros-and-cons,
no checking-off of strengths-and weaknesses, no audit
of learning outcomes will express it. It calls up feelings,...
points of view,... relationships,... allegiances! All that
Sarah might do is lay out the fragments - encounters,... remarks,...
images,... beliefs,... fears! The only order anyone can find
for stuff like this is narrative order - career is best understood
as a story.
Why? Because only a story gives a person a useful take
... who influences me, and why I allow it:
... fears, hopes and intuitions I seem unable to ignore;
... what I must hold on to, and what I can let go.
But, to ask about any of this is to invite the unexpected. Which,
of course, upsets apple carts: sidelining much of occupational information;
invalidating a good many computer print-outs; transforming the work-experience
agenda; and bringing new pages of disclosure to progress files.
If we were to start expecting to hear what Sarah can only barely
express, we would transform what we call careers education
And if we cant do that to help Sarah; we certainly cant
help the young men and women who can see fewer possibilities and
more obstructions than she. Connexions demands that we rethink what
we expect to deal with in careers work.
Nobody is saying that an opening-up processes is not happening;
it would be hard to know. But what we can say is this: while practice
remains information-dominated, skills-driven and social-context-free,
then it will move in the wrong direction for all of its clients
- and, most of all, for those who need it most.
The test of progress? There are at least two (1) a careers worker
who finds it appropriate to work with people in such exploratory,
personal and feeling-laden terms; and (2) a client who has learned
to agree with him about that.
But for both Sarah and her interviewer working with such a story
is 'not expected'. And we all know what that means.
I dont know what Sarah should do, and neither do you. The
point is that much of the current apparatus of careers education
and guidance - useful though it is for more routine situations -
cannot help her to know what she should do.
But things change. Until recently there has been a good chance that
any government publication on careers work would have choice
on the front page: Better Choices, Skills for
Choice, Choice and Careers - all with lots of
references to reliable information, opportunities,
individual decision-making', and skills.
Now we have a new word: connections'. And career does make
connections - in some obvious senses, and in some that are not so
obvious. Work is done with, for and in response to other people.
The experience of work therefore connects us - or fails to connect
us - to each other, to society, and to the good and bad feelings
that such links always call up.
And the feelings can be pretty bad. The past no longer gives us
so much of a clue to the future, and moving on' is - therefore
- fraught with uncertainty and stress. Connections is - initially
anyway - directed at people for whom career is - in one sense or
another - a sharp pain. And, for every one in pain, there are many
others - like Sarah (and her mother) - for whom career is a dull
Connexions is staffed to offer a wider range of community links,
offering help at varying depths. And that means being ready to work
with pain, ambiguity - and the unexpected.
This debate is, then, not some intellectual wrangle among self-promoting
academics. It is about peoples lives. If we dont look
for a wider and deeper understanding contemporary career, we wont
find it. And we risk collision with the people we should
be looking out for.
You are in the magazine section of the The Career Learning Café
> look at how stories express what is important in real
check out current
ideas on the value of narrative
> look at practical implications
> see how this thinking suggests a deeper diagnosis
of learning needs
examine implications for
catch up with a short account
of where careers work is going