Why do we undervalue careers advisers?

This week, the Higher Education Policy Institute published a report highlighting the underprovision of specialist careers support for international students. It highlights an important gap in provision, but part of the research involved a survey of international students, few of whom credited their university careers service with having helped them.

With just cause, Mike Grey of Gradconsult took issue with this on Twitter and I recommend his thread below that got me thinking more widely about the credit that careers advisers get – or fail to get – for their work not only in universities, but in schools, colleges and local services.

We’ve all heard – or told – tales about how some careers advisor “told me to be a [insert laughably inappropriate career]”, but people who are helped by careers advice tend never to mention it. Why? Can it be true that careers advice is so wide of the mark? Of course not.

There are multiple cognitive biases here.

For starters, as Mike’s thread shows, there’s a tendency to credit the outcome of a chain of events to the last link, even when the first link is usually more important.

Also, for the sake of our sense of self, we take more personal credit for the choices we make that we consider to have had good outcomes, and we outsource our agency to others when we aren’t so happy about how it turned out.

It’s therefore easy to retrospectively underplay the influence of careers advisers, as Mike describes, even when they have been instrumental in the process.

This effect is exaggerated by the fact that the idea that careers advisers tell anyone what to be is desperately outdated (if indeed it was ever true). Advisers help people explore what they have to offer and want they might want to do in life. They help map pathways that open up opportunities (or that stop them from closing). They help connect people with opportunities that they show an interest in.

What they do not do is puppetry.

The agency – the choice and control – always stays with the ‘client’.

Ensuring that the client feels ownership of their choices and that they came from themselves is an important part of the careers adviser doing their job well. However, in the process, it also means their good work is likely to go unrecognised.

So why the stories about advisers telling people to be secretaries, vicars or podiatrists? My theory is that it may be down to one of four reasons, some cobination of them or even all four together:

  1. The memory may not actually be a faithful record of what happened, but rather during the (often frequent) retelling, the myth has taken over the true events.
  2. These were mere suggestions on the part of the careers adviser in response to actual interests that the client did mention.
  3. Rather than even suggestions, they were part of a wider conversation about avenues that could be explored.
  4. The adviser may have been deliberately exploring unlikely options in order to help the client stretch their horizons, consider new possibilities or mark out areas that were of no interest.

Modern careers advice is driven by well established and well evidenced theoretical approaches. It is delivered by excellent practitioners using sophisticated digital tools. The professionals who deliver careers guidance help people to make their lives just as doctors help to save them.

If we want better careers advice, we should back it more and rely on the expertise of professional practitioners. Relatively meagre public investment in careers education, information, advice and guidance will yield huge returns in helping match employers with employees who will be more productive and fulfilled, and it will lower society’s waste of our shared human capital.

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