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uploaded 25th February 2011


careers-work professionalism



Bill Law
the career-learning café

Careers-work professionalism is at a cross-roads.  How it moves on now will have consequences for the public face of our professions, the partnerships we seek, the stakeholders we serve, the research we undertake, and the methods and materials we develop.  More than that, it will make a difference to the kind of funding we can attract.  But, most importantly, it will influence the people we are able to attract and retain as members of our professions.

This article starts from the idea of careers work as a helping profession.  It is a personal commitment - individual careers workers reaching for the best they can do, by the people who depend on their integrity.  But, it is argued here, professionalism is also an institutional responsibility - needing policies and arrangements which engage with that kind of integrity.  Without institutional professionalism individuals are too-little supported and too-much exposed.  Without the energy and ability of individual professionalism institutional policies are futile.

The article is a response to the report of the careers profession task force.  It urges the case for a stronger professionalism.  It has led to the creation of a new partnership of professional associations, the careers profession alliance, to carrying the work forward. 

All professions are being confronted with the cross-road issues.

>     for credibility - are we trusted?
>     for expertise - do we know enough?
>     for connectedness - are we in touch?
>     for independence - are we that impartial?

These are pragmatic issues.  We can know that things are working when people seek us out - life-long and life-wide - inside our institutions, in their neighbourhoods, and on our websites.  This is critical for individual professionals - wherever they work, and whatever social enterprises they set up. 

But this kind of complexity is contested.  The article goes into some detail about how differently-constituted groups favour differently-argued responses, to differently-conceived situations.  It points to issues which commercial or policy interests will not, or cannot, take on. 

This is not a short article - and it is not proposing any ready-made answers.  The alliance has made a start on its work.  But there is a long-term agenda calling for its attention.  We are a long way from where any contemporary profession should be.  And, so, the article is intended to parallel the task-force report.  It maps an extensive territory, and a road through it.  And, the longer the journey the more important our sense of which way is forward.

The article supports the careers work alliance - which it takes to be in-line to take on all of this work.  It also shows that the cross-road issues will take us into new places - unlike what we have known in any recent or distant past. 

No country for old professionals.


get this article as a pdf

who do we attract and retain as members of our professions?




without individual professionalism, institutional policy is futile




we are a long way from where we need to be




At the heart of all defensible professionalism is a belief in the sort of knowledge needed to best serve user’s interests.  It enables true professionals to rise above arbitrary pressure.

There is a well-trodden path to that kind of professionalism.  It means getting a qualification, gaining membership of an appropriate body, signing up to standards, calling on expertise, and remaining in touch with co-professionals.  These are necessary steps to becoming professional; the question posed here is ‘do they go far enough?’.

George Bernard Shaw overdid his ‘conspiracy against the laity’ jibe.  But he had a point, and contemporary professionals are taking it seriously.  They are learning to be more modest about what they claim.  And they know they are under scrutiny - the alliance should not assume that careers workers are exempt.

Economic globalisation, and the digital technology which makes it possible, have changed the way people see things.  People find out what is going on in new ways, and they work out what to do about it more independently. And that, of course, changes how they see professionals.  And, so, in that changing situation, we must now ask ...

>     on credibility - are we widely recognised as necessary, approachable, accessible, relevant - and, therefore, trusted?
>     on expertise - are we sufficiently equipped in the disciplines that offer the most useful account of what people actually do?
>     on connectedness - are we in touch with the partners and stakeholders who can authentically speak for these realities?
>     on independence - are we as free of arbitrary influence as our claims to impartiality assert?


how credible?

It is not for the alliance to say how credible we are, it is for people to let us know whether they find us credible - or not.  As they do.

Part of the issue stems from people’s sense that what we do looks-and-feels like what people have traditionally been able to do for themselves - and with their friends.  And they are not entirely wrong about that - learning and advice are refinements of how, in more congenial societies, people help each other.  They learn how from experience.  They see it, not as our professional property, but belonging to any half-decent person’s humanity.  (Long ago, one of my clients was shocked to discover that I was paid.  What he saw as friendship I’d been trained to think of as empathy, congruence and warmth.  Was either of us wrong about that?)

People are increasingly able to find more friends, and take more control of their lives. An example, is how we can become our own travel agents.  Nonetheless, people know that there are times when they’re out-of-their-depth, and need a deeper level of help.  Few of us are going to rush up the holiday gangway, to take on the emergency piloting of the ‘airplane!’. 

All of this gives professionalism a bit of disentangling to do...

are we offering a know-how that people recognise they need?
is that know-how seen as more like an air-line pilot’s or a travel agent’s?
how do we reconcile what people learn from experience with what we learn from training?

professions are under scrutiny - we should not assume that we are exempt









there is authority in both training and experience


People are quick to dismiss the offer of what they think they already know.  They are not necessarily wrong about that.  In a globalised world, served by its digital technology, people can increasingly access and evaluate information, help and bases-for-action - on pretty-well anything that crops up.  Journalists and foreign-office diplomats have recently been noticing that - on an hourly basis.

Highly trained professionals may shudder - but they miss the point.  The credibility of our expertise is in question.  There is no shortage of evidence concerning doubt about what we do.  True, much of it is anecdotal; but it is spontaneous, and persistent, and pretty-consistent.  And there’s a lot of it. 

Most importantly, it belongs to a recognisable social trend.  Teachers might notice that students want to talk about what is happening in their own experience now, not what is remembered from some ageing expert’s experience?  An advisor could find a preference for simplified, rather than complicated, ways of talking about what’s going on - and a distinct turning-off, if a lot of questions crop up?  Any careers workers can come across people who expect to be kept in their comfort zone - in such a culture confirmation goes across better than challenge? 

The trouble for professionals is that the more complicated things get, the more didactic we can sound.  But we are not wrong about that - useful learning surprises people.  Indeed, useful learning is often disturbing, even troublesome - it is certainly not merely reinforcing. 

The social trend here shows itself in how people would rather turn to ‘simple-as-that’ solutions - from ‘nice-and-easy’ sources - offering ‘quick fix’ coaching.  A government minister asserts that teaching is no more than a craft - quickly learned.  That is meant to put professionals, with their esoteric expertise, firmly in their place.

Manoeuvring ministers aside, the trend is for people to treat claims to exclusive expertise with a street-level scepticism.  It is said to be part of a post-enlightenment counter-intellectualism.  Actually, the whole independent-of-authority social movement owes more to the enlightenment than is fairly credited.  But independent thinking means that people learn about their own world, not ours.  And it would be a fatal mistake to to treat it as invariably empty-headed.  It can be smart enough to serve people better than we know.

But a bad feature of the trend is that it can easily lead the people who most need us, away from us.  They are least likely to turn to us for help.  And eager experts do not necessarily come out of that situation at all well.  Our talk does not have what they can recognise as credibility. There is no easy resolution here. 

We are not alone: bankers, doctors, lawyers, politicos, the media, and civil servants are re-thinking relationships with their customers, clients and constituents.  The communication channels can no longer be allowed to flow one way.  They never have in true personal professionalism.  But the issues remain - and need the scrutiny that only institutional professionalism can offer. In institutional terms the change is in the direction of what is called organisation-based ‘co-production’.  Services are more effective when they are set in an equal and reciprocal relationship between professionals and users.  It calls for a partnership between experience-based and expert-based action.

At the institutional level professional credibility is...

the recognition that the organisation
can relate what its experts know
to what its users know  

Part of the work of professional associations is to seek to influence the influential.  But politicians listen most carefully to their constituencies.  And these are our students and clients, with their families, in their neighbourhoods, and among their communities.  Our best hope of influencing policy is our credibility among these constituencies.

It needs professional-alliance attention.  The test of its success is not that we can claim credibility, it is that people attribute it to us.  Credibility is established not because we have more to say to our students and clients, but because they have more to tell us. 

independent thinking means they learn about their world - not ours




but independence can lead away from us the people who most need us




we need a partnership between their experience and our expertise




our best hope of influencing policy is this kind of credibility




the test is not in what we say - its in what they say



how expert?

None of this undermines expertise  - sometimes we all need people with more know-how.  Just because a person can package his own vacation, that doesn’t mean he knows what to do when the sat-nav locks up.  So what sort of ‘work-life sat-nav’ do we have?  The task force seemed ready to assume that the matter of our expertise is settled.  It isn’t.

The reality is that we have no body-of-knowledge - we borrow from academic disciplines.  What we find is called ‘careers studies’ - which is a subject, not a discipline.  Our study is in the behavioural sciences - largely psychology, sociology and economics.  We choose what seems useful for understanding clients and students. 

But careers studies does more: it assembles knowledge into an analysis. More than one pattern comes out of that process - each is a way-of-seeing how a career is most usefully  managed.  Some of this works well for business interests - citations often include the word ‘employability’ and ‘skills‘.  Some reflect policy priorities - the term ‘markets’ and ‘quality’ crop up a lot.  Some reflect personal-and-social interests - where phrases like ‘needs’ and ‘community’ readily assemble into explanatory sentences.

None of these patterns necessarily excludes any other. And even where they do, the boundaries between them can easily be fudged.  But the centre-of-gravity for each is different.  And, because they are different, they are contested: differently-constituted groups favour different differently-argued responses to differently-conceived situations.  There is always more than one way of interpreting every work-life situation.

Individual professionals are eclectic about this - day-by-day they can take what fits, on a case-by-case basis.  But there is a deeper, wider issue.  Anyone who has needed to reconcile one fragment of expertise with another faces it...

what idea is most useful for what purpose?
are these various purposes always reconcilable?
in a helping profession are they equally defensible? 
are there stronger and weaker explanations?
and, anyway, how do we know we’ve covered the ground? 

These are both technical and ethical issues.  And nothing is settled about the way they should be resolved.  The task force ducked them; personal professionalism can cope with them, institutional professionalism must deal with them.  It’s work for the careers-work alliance.

we might feel ready to assume that the matter of our expertise is settled - it isn’t






there's always more than one way of interpreting a work-life situation


career-studies expertise is not silent on these issues.  The fact is that it is offering more directions for development than recent career-work practice has fully explored.  The development of this thinking is worth tracking because it frames what we do - and might do.  And theory need not just talk-the-talk - if it’s any good, it’s got legs.

Early accounts of career management readily assemble into an account of a ‘self’, examining ‘opportunities’, coming to a ‘decision’, and following through with a plan for the resulting ‘transition’.  These four categories - labelled ‘DOTS’ - are pretty-well inclusive of what needs to be covered in career conversations.  They can include talk of subjective preferences, feelings and hopes.  They can also take on board objective measurements of skills and interests, as well as research-based labour-market information.  It is an analysis, linking categories for self to other categories.  It can be assembled in columns.  It makes information as accurate as can be.  It is, in all these ways, content-laden.

It also speaks of career management as though it were a process of matching - this self for this opportunity, that opportunity for that self.  It can even be used to call up the romantic imagery of ‘a dream job’ - making entering a career a bit like falling in love, which it sometimes is.  A more mundane image is of ‘pegs-and-holes’ - which may well be how most people visualise these things.  But it is more descriptive than explanatory concerning career management.  DOTS needs little more than a limited range of labour economics and the psychology of decision-making.  However, it is durable - it recently celebrated its 100th birthday.

‘DOTS’ is also highly individualistic - centered on a self.  But careers studies has moved on.  It now includes accounts of how social life influences career management.  It does that because it is looking, not just for what happens, but for why it happens as its does - not just describing career, but wondering about the causes of career. 

not just describing career - searching for the causes of career

And that means looking carefully at family background, early upbringing, growing attachments and firm allegiances - in the neighborhood and beyond.  The patterning here is often of narrative rather than analysis.  And that shifts control - people share in the telling of the story.  The helper is less a presiding expert, more a questioning friend.  As a technique that has always been at least a part of careers-work professionalism.  

The differences between narrative and matching are important: narrative recounts experience, showing one thing leading to another; it sequences what analysis fragments into columns; and it sets what happens in a social context - where conversation, point-of-view and conflict can feature.  Narrative can also recount the way in which instinct and intuition,
impulse and choice, luck and achievement feature in a life. DOTS can't say much about that.

So the talk becomes not just of next-step career - but of what is going on in a life. The metaphor changes: while matching calls up a staccato commentary on an immediate race, narrative offers a biography of a journey.  It opens doors to life-long life-wide learning. 

There is a further consequence: the presiding expert becomes a curious audience.  And that calls for a further shift of emphasis in careers studies. It now needs to understand how people make useable sense of that complexity.  Helping encounters become exchanges between you recounting and me probing.  Expertise shifts - not so much on content, more on process.  People can get the content in other ways.  Career studies can show how that content is usefully questioned, probed and scrutinised.

There are professional issues here - for patterning what we know of...

career and the causes of career;
content and process;
analysis and narrative;
instinct and intuition;
impulse and choice;
luck and achievement.

This is not about supporting a claim to professionalism.  It is good because it shows how things work - and can be made to work better.  If that doesn’t happen, then it doesn’t matter how well people do in accreditation.  Some people, who don’t do what it takes to shine in assessment, learn to do good careers work in other ways.  Professionalism gets those priorities the right way up.

in narrative the helper is less a presiding expert - more a questioning friend





opening doors to life-long life-wide learning. 


commercial-interest expertise is impressed by some of careers studies, but not all.  The matching model works well for the business world - how best to link a person to an opportunity is as much a recruitment procedure as a learning process.  It puts careers workers and human-resource people on the same pages in economics and psychology texts - skills for employability.

The attitude of higher education to employability is changing.  The idea of a university has not, for most of its history, been identified with commercial interests.  Entrance tutors paid little attention to the advice of business schools.  But now the need to recruit high-performing candidates is becoming as much of a driver in globally-competitive universities as it is in globally-competitive companies.

A series of business-world working papers on careers work moves that matched individual into those global conditions.  Starting with a commitment to individual well-being, the titles lead to a concern for commercial survival.  The papers describe what are presented as a natural links between individuals and their effects on ‘the bottom line’ and the achievement of ‘growth’.  All in what seems to be an un-contestable analysis...

‘putting the individual first’
‘bridging the skills gap’
‘world-class competitiveness’ 

But it is contested.  Even labour economics raises doubts about how far individual performance affects commercial competitiveness.  And unfettered growth is increasingly being confronted with stop-and-think challenges.  A process-driven education interrogates both the validity and the desirability of these claims.

Education and selection are not the same thing - but they are linked.  And it is the examination system that links them.  Test and exam results are used both to validate the effectiveness of learning, and to shortlist the strongest applicants for places in employment and continuing education.  It means that careers work can readily be seen as front-loading into recruitment - what careers workers do starts a procedure which is completed by what selectors do.

matching links careers workers to recruiters



it makes individuals responsible for ‘the bottom line’



education interrogates the truth of these claims


And so the commercial world has an interest in education - and its working papers are flexible.  At times they favour technical-and-vocational education.  At other times they seek to maximise achievement in a wholly-academic curriculum.  They also propose minimum standards for careers work.  But we should be careful what we wish for - the proposals have not rescued careers education from its minimal position on the edge of timetable.

But the working papers have re-shaped careers-work thinking.  The performance indicators used to monitor, evaluate and design careers-work programmes draw heavily on the matching model.  And versions of the model frame policy analyses of learning objectives.  A prevalent matching thinking has also been internalised by careers-work people.  The categories we use in our own professional frameworks and blue-prints prominently feature matching categories. 

At least part of the professional response has been to discard the journeying complexity documented by careers studies.  It has, instead, welcomed yet more matching programmes - now made user friendly with inviting bells and enticing whistles.  It’s a limited friendship - commercial interests have shown little interest in the substance of what careers studies finds.  We need not be surprised by that: recruitment needs to be strong on the outcomes of career learning, it has a less immediate interest in its explanatory processes. 

It is as much sociology as any other discipline which most fully explains those causes of career.  Sociology has much to say about the stratification of why people seek entry to high-level opportunities - and why they do not.  The failure to establish fair levels of social mobility has been documented, both in higher education and in high-status professions.  But commercial interest can, independently of that knowledge, find enough of who they need.

All of this assigns to careers work professionalism pressing issues for matching...

putting the individual first - but not all individuals;
improving employable skills - which account for little in productivity;
world-class competitiveness - at whatever cost;
strong on career - but not the causes of career.

Commercial interests have little difficulty in gaining policy support for their take on of these issues.  Neither are they without careers-work professional support.

matching can come with inviting bells and enticing whistles





recruitment needs learning outcomes - we need explanatory processes


policy-interest expertise has for some time been based on neo-liberal thinking - and its market metaphor.  At first sight these interests seem to coincide with commercial interests.  They do, but not entirely.  Indeed, neo-liberalism is a rejection of the sort of command economy where 'big government' comes to the rescue of struggling commerce. And so, while commercial interests seek policy intervention, market thinking keeps intervention to a minimum.  All market transactions are thought to be mutually advantageous. And, though a matching model helps with commercial recruitment, for neo-liberals the market explains everything.  It sees career management in wholly contracted terms - determined by supply and demand. Nothing else matters.

But commerce understands the limitations of market forces.  There is a long and continuing history of businesses offering not-for-profit services to employees and to the community.  Neo-liberal beliefs, that such altruism is an expensive and futile distraction, are not necessarily callous.  A neo-lib purist just fully inhabits a marketised world; and thinks everyone should join him - or her.

In such thinking the test of value is commodity competitiveness.  Take the need for more STEM - science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  Those needs can be met by market forces, because people can recognise their market value - and without getting into talk of skills and preferences.  They can do that, and they do.  And, where this thinking works, its outcome is economic success - both for the individual and for the gross domestic product.

The market position needs no matching model, but it is highly individualistic.  In the market place the individual is sometimes the customer and sometimes the vendor. In the higher-education market, the individual is shopping for goods.  But in the labour market the individual is putting the goods on sale.  At times opportunities are available to individuals as commodities; at other times individuals are the commodities.  Guess what the process is called.

In commodification the individual is all.  No other person, group, or membership is expected to take part in the transaction.  There is no room for anyone else to meet hidden development costs.  Neither is there room for social costs to be taken into account. Both are said to be externalised.  We have witnessed several spectacular examples of externalisation.

In market thinking the individual takes on the costs and risks of the transaction. In careers thinking, this on-going series of individually-negotiated exchanges constitutes what has been called a ‘portable career’.  Career is freight delivered by the individual.

It might all work out well.  But, in a market-place, the loudest voices speak of success, satisfaction and recommendation.  We may, therefore, not hear much about the downside.  We don’t know enough about people who take on more risk than they calculate, who encounter unforeseen consequences, who are thwarted by shifts in demand, or who have their plans disrupted by changed personal-or-social circumstances.  It would not be good marketing to tell us, but we need to hear more about that.  To know it would displace a 'who-dares-wins' celebration of risk-taking with the good-sense of risk-management. 'Del-boy' Trotter got lucky; the dragons-in-their-den are much more cautious.

Market thinking ignores the greater part of these causes of career - global causes, causes in neighbourhoods, in family and in personal well-being.  Market thinking is massively out of kilter with what careers studies finds.

But one reality is inescapable: all markets are lop-sided.  On one side of the transaction is a person who can be counted on to know what is going on - what’s good, and not good, to look good.  But we cannot assume that level of knowledge on both sides of the transaction.  This lack of symmetry can be corrected.  But in neo-liberal thinking markets are normal, and correction is artificial; so any regulation of the market must be minimal - and easily measurable. The liberal in neo-liberalism is actually libertarian.

the neo-liberal test is commodity competitiveness



opportunities can be commodities - so can people



development and social costs are 'externalised' - and ignored



the individual takes on the risks



the liberal in neo-liberalism is libertarian


The sort of interventions that this thinking gives to careers work includes...

descriptions and definitions - to clearly target what should happen;
rationales and standards - to confirm value;
materials and methods - to inform action;
performance indicators - to kite-mark quality.

This apparatus scripts performance: it calls on user preference to steer what performance should be; it needs no other way of working with what ignites demand; it works on equalising asymmetries by rebalancing information; and its indicators of quality are minimal-and-measurable.  The procedure is said to be target-driven; it is derided as ‘tick-box’.  Nonetheless, some careers-work professionals see themselves as market facilitators. Professionals in other fields are increasingly sceptical - such procedures are thought capable of harmfully distorting what professionals do.

Some of the most persistent scepticism is in education.  The market metaphor does not work well for education.  It’s important to keep in mind that the labour market is no more than an image, giving 'as-if' substance to the abstractions we talk about.  A similarly competitive, but more colloquial, metaphor is of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ - as if in a race.  A race calls for coaching - training in an immediate and unproblematic task.  Educators are more likely to use a journeying image - which works better for learning ready-for-anything adaptability. 

Careers work is a helping profession enabling learning.  But is that learning enabled by training or by education? The point is contestable, as history attests. Over the decades careers work has been variously linked to employment departments with trainers. and to education departments with teachers. Employment is an economics ministry and there is kudos there.  But there is also a question about how much overlap there can be between training for a known-and-agreed task, and learning how to be ready for anything. Is there a difference between training and education? See if inserting the word 'sex' before each term helps with the answer.

Reconciling training and education is not an either-or.  But we need to think about whether one is ancillary to the other. Any journey may be interrupted with a trained-up race - though a race cannot be interrupted with a learning journey.  So is one the ancillary of the other?  And if so which to which?  The task-group move for a single profession can trip-up on this question - a single profession may not be able to have things both ways...

market management - and learning enablement;
asymmetrical market - and imperfectly informed learner;
risk taking - and risk management;
commodification - and life-wide usefulness;
coaching - and education;
race - and journey.

This is not an either-or situation - these issues need to be straddled.  And that makes an open partnership between the career-guidance and career-curriculum professions more sustainable than unification.  It is neither necessary nor desirable to seek exact correspondence in every aspect of the work.  And to think of one as ancillary to the other would damagingly limit the scope of this work.

There is a further background to this.  Neo-liberalism has a long reach.  The professions can, themselves, be commodified - with their quality standards measured and kite-marked.  The prevalence of such thinking is manifested in the use of ‘brands’ - by students and clients, by their helpers, and by careers-work organisations.  The market metaphor - and its ‘winners-and-losers’ variation - is pervasive.  After a while you stop noticing that they are only metaphors - and we all start behaving as though they are real.  The alliance must deal with this.

careers work as training - and as education







a single profession can't have it both ways






thinking of one as ancillary to the other is damaging to both


social-interest expertise refers to the shared community-and-culture background to all career management.  It includes all of what market thinking externalises. 

It is true that a dominant question for career management has always been how economically well-paid is the work - the roles of worker and consumer are entwined.  But the way the question is posed is changing.  People are increasingly as likely to talk about how they plan to spend their wages, as they are about what they plan to do for their wages.  Interests has shifted from life as a producer to life as a consumer. Logo, celebrity and brand increasingly feature in the iconography of identity. Economy and culture are dance partners.

Such thinking belongs to careers studies’ probing of the experience of career management.  Academic findings on learning and narrative significantly re-positions both matching and marketing models.  The use of cultural theory locates careers work where it can be strong on careers and strong on the causes of career.  Indeed, we can do more - based on the exponential expansion in the academic understanding of how cultural theory now interacts with neuroscience.

A question underlying all of this is ‘who gets to do what in our society?’. It cannot be answered without taking account of what careers studies may find concerning the causes of career - for different people, finding different experiences, in different settings...

what drives and what shuts down?
what beckons and what repels?
what permits and what prevents?
what enables and what curtails?
what expands and what contracts?

Other accounts of what happens are sometimes gathered under one heading - empowerment. It's a mechanistic metaphor. Enabling both freedom and autonomy mean working on how people see where they are, and how ready they are to deal with that. Talking about it as if it were an outboard motor doesn't do enough to tease out how we help a person to recognise and do something about things. Things that drive, beckon, permit, enable and expand - and things that kick back, as things sometimes do.

All of this stands way outside the simplicities embraced by commercial and policy interests.  And to fail to take on board this new thinking on self, culture and economy would seriously compromise our expertise. 

Why is it, for example, that some people move on, relatively unhampered - to economically attractive work?  While others hold on, with little complaint - to what’s left?  Too few questions are asked about why some bright students settle for training as plumbers; while others, no-brighter, assume entry into a high-level profession.  It challenges the over-easy use of the term 'choice' - choice favours those who feel themselves in a position to choose. It poses questions for how much attention we give to achievement rather than potential.  And, in stagnant economic conditions, these issues are fraught: social mobility becomes a two-way street - anyone’s step-up entails another’s step-down. 

If we are serious about aspiration we need to know what hampers it - and what suppresses it. Careers studies increasingly shows that aspiration, and the lack of it, is culturally transmitted through family and social  networks - their beliefs, values and expectations.  Those attachments and allegiances shape what people think worth achieving; and that shapes both achievement and how people look in market-place transactions.  Without reliable indicators of potential, both sides of that transaction lose.

The values, whether of rich or poor, are not necessarily self-serving.  Child-care for a single mother, and family-life for a busy professional, call up career-related values - for work-life balance and quality-of-life.  And those values can reach wider.  A person might be mortified to find that she is working for a global company that is exploiting developing-world vulnerabilities.  And work has a carbon footprint, with catastrophic consequences for living species.  Institutional professionalism could ensure that occupational information includes this kind of data.  Impartiality is not value free, it is value balanced.

logo, celebrity and brand are becoming features of a sense of self



a question underlying everything is ‘who gets to do what?’



'freedom' and 'autonomy' are more than 'empowerment'



life drives, beckons, permits, enables and expands - and sometimes it kicks back



not to take on new thinking compromises our expertise



work has a carbon footprint


There are cues here for life-wide and life-long career conversations.  Alert and responsive professionals are aware of them.  But those professionals are dealing with institutional managements which may still be working with matching and marketing values.  It would help to be able to appeal to an authoritative and convincing institutional professionalism.

A unifying theme, increasingly evoked in response to these cues, is personal-and-social well-being (the ‘happiness’ agenda is a practically meaningless attempt at simplification).  In integrated experience moving on is often as much about what, in her or his background, a person senses as worth holding onto - and what can be let go.  The concept transforms - maybe replaces - matching and marketing uses of the terms ‘decision’ and ’choice’. 

All of this pushes the boundaries of careers-work professionalism.  It relies on  a concept of moving on as much as of choice.  It means that we can only help with work roles if we are ready to engage with other-than-work roles.  It reaches beyond what is needed for recruitment.  It reaches way beyond the kind of cost-effective calculation that policy can readily accommodate.  And it considers a wider range of stakeholders than might immediately come to mind.

Alert and responsive professionals are aware, but they are dealing with institutional managements which may still be working with matching and marketing assumptions.  They need to be able to appeal to an authoritative and convincing institutional professionalism.

A true professionalism works on values of its own choosing.  But this does not come free-of-charge...

>    professionalism is called on to deliver on its claims - and the strain can be serious;
>    education delivers best where professionals are respected for the explanatory power of their expertise
>    that calls for an expertise wide and deep enough to work with the changing realities of contemporary working life;
>    no profession can be better than the quality of the people it attracts - and such an expertise will attract the interested attention of the best in the education professions.

The social issues for careers-work professionalism concern...

work and identity;
individual and background;
choice and position;
holding on and letting go;
economy and culture;
constraint and restraint;
achievement and potential;
work life and well-being;
work and sustainability;
work life and life roles.

The way we speak of such things - whether of 'dream jobs', 'pegs-for-holes', 'bottom lines', or 'winners-and-losers' - becomes familiar. The images appear compelling. The exchanges become self-reinforcing. Such talk seems to be about what is obvious and natural.  That happens with our clients and students and it also happens with us. And when it happens, we no longer listen to ourselves talking about these things - no point, it's taken-for-granted.  That can happen without our realising that is happening. Indeed, that is when a prevalent imagery takes over. No true professionalism falls for it.

The escape is through conversations which are not held wholly with ourselves.  Not everybody we engage should be trained in the same disciplines, studying the same research, making the same citations, visiting the same websites, going on the same courses, belonging to the same associations, meeting in the same settings.  That would not be a profession it would be an intellectual ghetto.  We need a wider connectedness.

moving on means both holding on and letting go - it's bigger than ’choice’






just saying what seems obvious and natural means we stop listening to ourselves






that would not inform a profession - it would form an intellectual ghetto



how connected?

Our expertise is set out in career studies - and it is continually expanding. It has a broad enough disciplinary base to be able to give an account of matching, marketing and social career management.  But it leaves us with the connectedness question - with whom should we be exchanging that thinking? 

The task force sets out a starting-point for working on the question.  It speaks of guidance-and-counselling people in partnership with teachers-and-lecturers.  Of course, everybody knows that there are others in the network.  But a current understanding is that, at the centre of that multi-lateral network, there is a bi-lateral agreement.  There is some variability - things work out differently in schools, higher education and life-long provision. But the essence of the partnership model is a negotiation between two groups of professionals - face-to-face workers and curriculum workers.  Each is differently based institutionally. The possibility of agreement is assumed.  

There are other people in our network; however, before examine that multi-laterality, there is still an issue for bi-laterality.  It takes us back to asking what distinctive contributions each partner contributes.  On the one hand we can draw on individually-responsive face-to-face work; on the other on interactively-progressive curriculum.  But, in that negotiation, it would be plain wrong to assume that each offers the same expertise, pursues the same objectives, and belongs to the same profession.  More than that, any such assumption would lead to one partner feeling more expert.  And that would not negotiate a partnership, it would impose a co-option.  The practical result? - guaranteed avoidance by the most able in whichever profession is cast in the ancillary role.

And, anyway, we are part of a bigger negotiation. We have already met the other interests...

students and clients;
their home life;
associated neighbourhood gatherings;
community-based agencies;
the wider curriculum;
institutional managers;
business concerns;
sources of funding and resource;

Community-based agencies are becoming more important. Not all of their people are salaried professionals.  The wider curriculum could become more important. And neither is able to say in advance what is going to happen - some of the most engaging programmes are spontaneous responses to still-unfolding events.  Careers education has always owed much of its inventiveness to that kind of responsiveness.  This is a still-developing trend - in the community-based sector much of it is on-line. It is all re-mapping the territories on which partnership agreements are negotiated.  

That mapping locates, not just partners, but also stakeholders.  Partners provide help with career management.  Some do it formally, like teachers; some informally, like voluntary mentors.  Stakeholders have an interest in how the help is organised.  Some, like families, have a personal-and-particular interest; some, like business people, have a professional-and-general interest.  Careers studies still needs better to understand the relationship between this expertise and that experience.

There are overlaps in the network. Parents may be business people.  Some mentors are also teachers.  But the most multifariously involved are students and clients.  They are both formally and informally in the loop, and as both partners and stakeholders.  On experience-expertise partnerships: their familiarity with on-line devices can usefully interact with a professional’s grasp of learning processes.  On stakeholding: a useful characterisation of careers work is to enable people to claim their membership in society.

Among the professions, careers workers’ networks are as diverse as any - actually and potentially.  It is not immediately obvious what this means for bi-lateral partnership models - too many variations.   But it does question the good-sense of leaving assumptions unchallenged.

Careers studies supports the point.  We know that career-management is curtailed by a narrow range of contacts; and that career possibilities are expanded by a wider range of new encounters.  This is not an account of manoeuvring-networking, it is networking-for-learning.  And emerging academic thinking shows how such diversified links are liberating.

Such diversified multi-laterality is a challenge for programme management.  Programme management is not institutional management - it works in another way - with both professional and other-than-professional helpers, and on both career and other-than-career issues.  It calls on a distinct set of management abilities:

some of our best programmes are spontaneous - not planned



we are re-mapping the territory for partnership



not just partners - but also stakeholders



building a bridge between expertise and experience



students-and-clients are both partners and stakeholders



our professional networks are as diverse as any


>    educators: able actively to engage helpers and their clients-and-students in well-designed programmes, drawing on an expanding range of learning settings, driven by comprehending motivation;
>    leaders: able credibly to position a programme, so that actual and potential partners and stakeholders - in the community and in the institution - can see what’s going on and why it’s valuable;
>    coordinators: able to set up and administer efficient and appropriate ways of managing the logistics, budgeting and reporting of all that the partnership and its stakeholders take on.

All of these aspects of programme management depend on contact with both partners and stakeholders.  This is not a job for one or two people.  Indeed few institutions are in a position to set this up unless it is serving not just careers work, but all learning-for-living programmes.  These are programmes for  'careers', 'well-being', 'personal, social and health', 'citizenship' or 'personal and social development’.  None of them will, in any event, do anything worthwhile in isolation from the rest.  An integrated life needs integrated learning.

Some schools have well-developed extended programmes - some of them providing bases for SureStart and similar support-and-advice services for local people. The sort of careers work professionalism we are now developing accords with that movement to get wider community involvement.  It establishes links which are visible, accessible and trusted by a whole neighbourhood. Those links could be established life-wide and life-long.  It might well be our best hope for establishing life-long programmes of help with career management.

Connectedness raises questions for what kind of partners we need - and can attract. We need people who are in command of what they know - whether learned from professional training or life experience.  We need people who can fire-up eager interest and useful action in students and clients.  And we need people who appreciate the importance of doing this.

Not all academic teachers are like this - even the ones with first-class degrees.  And taking on people who happen to be available is certainly no way to find the teachers who are like this.  To settle for such a manoeuvre will not attract and retain the interested attention of the people we need.  Institutional professionalism needs to rise above such short-sightedness.  It is our best hope of ensuring that we work with the best in the education professions.

It needs firmer support from sources of institutional professionalism - concerning the relationship between what is done about...

guidance and mentoring;
formal and informal;
face-to-face and curriculum;
partners and stakeholders;
available and attracted;
practice and management;
conventional and on-line.

There are countervailing dynamics.  Some see such inclusiveness as a dilution of careers work - not an enrichment.  They support a professionalism which protects past achievements and maintains it within well-defined boundaries.  Bi-lateral partnerships are good for protecting this kind of consolidation.

The future is multi-lateral. 

integrated living needs integrated learning








trusted accessibility - the best hope for life-long careers work



how independent?

Doing careers work on the basis of employability needs categories - categories abstract from a person the ways in which she or he can be linked to the job.  There are categories for skills, preferences, achievements and the like.  Each is an indicator of what would permit a person's entry to an occupation, or what would drive that person's performance in that occupation.  In these ways they show how fully this person is in-line for this occupation, and how far ahead in the queue this person is.  The thinking works for both guidance and selection.  Its ethic is competitiveness - there is an 'ought-ness' about it.

What happens in matching is an episode in a life. It is part of a narrative. But the story integrates it into a longer, deeper and wider account . That account speaks of who-and-what brought that person to that position, and who-and-what else has an interest in how it plays out. But no such story can be told wholly in terms of employable competitiveness. The careers studies' account of the causes of career shows.   Employable competition may be the least of the considerations that a person needs not to forget. The story may have other-than-employability meanings, and those meanings may suggest other-than-competitive purposes.

All narrative has some sense of meaning and purpose.  One of the most useful questions - in both guidance and selection - is often along the lines of 'what gave you the idea of doing this work?'.  A competitor will sometime then claim a ‘passion’ for the activity, or the company or the brand. But requiring the interviewer to listen to that cliché again may well be a good way to get an application binned. The same principle applies to the blank space on the application form - asking for 'other information'. So, how to answer the question? Because, even if your employer doesn't care, you do.

Working on one's own story equips a person distinctively to speak of the heart-and-mind commitment that has brought him to this place.  That is something interesting and useful to say.  And any person may need to talk with somebody - even if not a recruiter - about the many who-and-what considerations that give that story its meaning and shapes its purpose.

Meaning-and-purpose is an ethical matter.  It suggests an ethic which declines to separate the function from the person, that refuses - as matching can - just to abstract the work from the worker.  The task force was insistent about the importance of professional ethics. But ethics implies freedom for autonomous action - and autonomy does not come cheap.  In the name of 'being realistic' we are sometimes reminded of what curtails autonomy.  A former prime minister’s saying ‘you can’t buck the markets’, is an obeisance to arbitrary constraint.  The saying ‘there's no such thing as society, only families and their children' similarly disposes of an inconvenient truth.  Compliance and denial are not ethical positions.

Ethics is not a reflection of ‘personal values’, ‘individual need’, ‘or point-of-view’.  An ethical principle that applies to anybody, applies to everybody.  Its basis for action is what the enlightenment sought to uphold as human rights.  These heart-and-mind commitments are prioritised - often on the basis of demonstrable unfairness.  Such ethics is nothing if not shared.  But that does not mean that ethics can be recruited on behalf of any sectional interest.  It is independent of arbitrary pressure.  That is why expertise and evidence is critical to professionals.  And it means that - on some issue or another, and sooner or later - ethics must take a stand.

Careers studies is inclusive enough to lay out the terms in which a stand may be necessary.  It's true that you can't step straight from an 'is' to an 'ought'. But, if you have absolutely no idea what is going on, then you have no basis for knowing what you ought to do about it. Careers studies account of the causes of careers is a tool for framing an ethics for professionalism.  It re-embeds work-life in society - re-making it as part of part of a social identity.  In that spirit, the future of work is now being called ‘occupational citizenship’.  We need a narrative to show how such thinking can call on a professional independence of prevailing commercial and policy assumptions.

Ethics seeks an irreducible basis for action.  In a contested field it seeks un-contestable principles.  This is not back-of-an-envelope thinking - there are few ready-made certainties. Almost all of the issue raised in this article have an ethical dimension - an evocation of the meaning and purpose a professional careers worker can bring to that role. And, among those issues, some have unmistakable ethical resonance...

function and person;
preference and right;
demand and need;
competition and sustainability;
universal and local;
expertise and experience.

a story has other-than-employability meanings - and other-than-competitive purposes



meaning-and-purpose is an ethical matter - a heart-and-mind commitment - applying to everybody



if we've no idea what's going on - we've no basis for knowing what we ought to do



this is not back-of-an-envelope thinking



Ethics protects the value of what we do; it, therefore, sometimes means changing what we do.  Any complete ethics has an uncomfortable capacity for self-criticism.  For example, if we knew for sure that demand-led imperatives for unfettered growth do not serve anyone’s long-term interests, then we must say so.  And that would mean that drawing exclusively on labour-market economics to frame occupational information, would be colluding with the denial of an inconvenient truth.  Ethical thinking has a capacity for self-criticism - and that needs a big-enough careers studies to support it.
Any employing institution - whether in school, university or service - has its own ethos.  A cash-strapped organisation may cloak itself in whatever ideology best serves its survival interests.  And that could be irrespective of an individual professional’s priorities.  A secure ethical professionalism needs a place where such dilemmas are authoritatively examined - and where defensible values are prioritised.

The 'big society’ is being canvassed as a social space where people can work on the basis of local - not government - priorities. We'll come back to that claim. But there is, immediately, a 'says who?' issue - any big society needs to be big enough in the range of its sympathies, to be able to protect a minority interest from a dominant one.  The evidence for the big society on that issue is not good. But what might be significant for us is that some constituencies in government are signalling a willingness to acknowledge the value of other-than-government thinking for supporting local basis for action.  Unhappily, policy manoeuvring on the issues has defiled the concept - to the point of derision.

And that's a serious pity. Because the big society is not a new idea - until recently the term was ‘civil society’.  Civil society is where the action is driven neither by government nor by commerce.  It happens in a wide range of formal and informal organisations in any society. They correspond closely with the more vulnerable sectors of careers work's stakeholder network: families, community groups, religious affiliations, voluntary outfits, non-government organisations, trades unions, and social enterprises.  Civil society takes on action where policy and commerce cannot - or will not - go.  On that basis professional associations can be part of it, so can education.  The big society sometimes sounds like an invitation to individuals to get excited about doing something for other people.  Civil society is stronger than that - it recognises the need of individual commitment to find institutional support.  So it urges people to do more than get excited, it urges them to get organised.

In careers work, can we think of a social movement concerned with ethical priorities; for people whose interest are neglected by commerce and policy; big-thinking enough to negotiate what is contested; self-critical enough to think again, independent enough to change direction; organised enough to support its people in whatever working situation they find themselves?  And does that sound like work for the careers-work alliance?

A previous attempt to create such a space for careers work allowed itself to be dominated by business and policy interests. But policy is showing signs of pulling back from where it knows central policy cannot work. If that is so, we would notice careers workers asking for clearer guidance about what they are supposed to do. They might wonder where their status comes from, if it is not assigned by business or government.  They would need, instead, to rely on their own free-thinking creativity.  The evidence is that deep-enough training enables professionals to develop working orientations which are independent of the systems in which find themselves.  The role of institutional professionalism, in civil society, is to develop a framework for that individual preparation.

We need to examine how much of this kind of innovatory work can be done on-line.  But it is already becoming clear that some of the personal professionalism it will support will be enacted locally - re-embedding careers work in social enterprises that displaced careers workers set up.

In all of these ways we can establish a jointly-owned and strategically-aligned space, developing a coherent institutional professionalism for careers-work.  How it does that will have consequences for the public face of our professions, the partners we work with, the stakeholders we acknowledge, the research we undertake, and methods and materials we develop.  It will also make a difference to the kind of funding we can attract.  But, most importantly, it will influence the people we are able to attract and retain as members of our professions.

Professionalism needs a collective a memory - a shared basis for action.  That is what careers studies provides: it continuously develops an account of how career management works; and it forms a basis for the ethical principles which signpost our use of that expertise.  The careers-work alliance is, right now, our best hope for locating and maintaining that level of professionalism.


take on action where policy and commerce cannot - or will not - go










with training for orientations independent of the systems in which we work




careers studies is a collective memory - for professional expertise - and its ethics




it is our best hope of a shared, this and effective professionalism



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