Ian McIntosh and Julia Yates (City, University of London)
Journal of the National Institute for Career Education and Counselling, 42(1), pp. 9-17.
The debate over the different roles and contributions made by employers and careers practitioners in English secondary schools’ careers work is not new. But there is limited research comparing them. Our recently published study (which can be found here[LINK]) brings to the debate a quantitative analysis which analyses and compares the two approaches.
A good body of evidence shows the benefits of employer engagement with young people, including job market rewards. The literature shows that career information presented first-hand by real-life employers talking about their own jobs can seem more vivid and authentic to young people than information received through school channels. But how does that compare with a personalised one-to-one conversation, with a specialist careers practitioner, exploring students’ individual career thoughts and aspirations? More specifically, is an employer intervention which provides career information as effective as the traditional guidance interview at supporting students making career choices? Our study sought to answer these questions.
Our starting point was a 20-30 minute traditional guidance interview with a careers practitioner. The employer intervention we selected to compare was a careers fair and also, as a variation, a careers fair supported by classroom workshops before and after the fair (wraparounds). (We chose careers fairs because their focus on providing occupational information to support career choices, rather than employability and transition skills, made them the most comparable to a guidance interview.)
The study, carried out with 233 year 10 and 11 students across 9 Leeds schools during 2014/15, used an independent samples design, with students from 3 schools experiencing each of the 3 interventions.
A comparison of answers to questionnaires administered pre-intervention and repeated post-intervention compared the effects of the three different interventions. The questionnaires measured 3 different career learning outcomes:
- Vocational identity – a form of careers self-knowledge – was measured with 15 questions from the vocational identity sub-section of My Vocational Situation.
- Opportunity awareness – job opportunity knowledge – was assessed with questions from the ‘Amount of Information’ and ‘Satisfaction with Information’ subscales in the Career Exploration Survey.
- Career Decision-making Self-efficacy (decision-making) was measured by 20 questions from the Career Decision-Making Self-Efficacy Scale – Short Form.
These concepts were chosen to focus on what the interventions do to support students making career choices and addressing questions such as: ‘What kind of job would suit me?’ ‘What jobs are out there?’ ‘How can I get the job?’
Reference should be made to the report for a full explanation of the data and statistical techniques used. But the results can be summarised broadly as follows:
- Pupils’ scores on all three career learning outcomes (vocational identity, opportunity awareness and decision-making) increased following all three career interventions. It seems all 3 interventions ‘worked’.
- On both vocational identity and decision-making the guidance interview group reported benefits which were significantly greater than those reported by both the careers fair groups. This suggests the guidance interview was a more effective intervention than careers fairs, on these measures.
- On opportunity awareness there were no significant differences reported between the groups after the three interventions, suggesting similar effectiveness.
- Wraparound workshops did not appear to enhance the careers fairs’ effects.
Vocational identity is the outcome where the study found guidance interviews outperformed careers fairs most strongly. Guidance interviews tend to focus on students’ personal circumstances and choices, with specialist career practitioners encouraging them to make links from their goals and talents to the workplace. By contrast, careers fairs are structured to present occupational information, with less opportunity for dialogue about individuals’ personal characteristics. So perhaps a finding that guidance interviews develop career self-awareness more effectively than employer careers fairs shouldn’t surprise us.
The finding that guidance interviews also outperformed careers fairs on decision-making appears less obvious. In our report we suggest this can be explained by the cognitive processes involved. For example, while guidance interviews would focus on careers relevant to the student, careers fairs are designed to showcase a wider range of opportunities. This means a large volume of information, but its unpersonalised nature is likely to mean each student finds a greater proportion of it is irrelevant to them personally. This matters because larger amounts of information are harder to process, and irrelevant information harder than relevant information. Similarly, careers information selected and filtered by a careers practitioner, who would highlight careers’ negative aspects as well as positives, may be more manageable than raw information from employer presentations which (understandably) paint a very positive picture.
Careers fairs’ strongest area was opportunity awareness, where their results were similar to interviews’. This suggests that although careers practitioners’ information does not have the real-life vivid impact of employers’, their different approach – a more personal balanced discussion of a smaller number of relevant occupations – is equally effective. It was disappointing that the wraparounds did not appear to make a difference by supporting the students to process careers fair information more effectively.
This study focussed on career learning, not other elements of careers programmes associated with employer interventions, such as transition and employability skills, and building students’ human, social and cultural capital. We believe the study raises questions about how young people are best supported in interpreting valuable employers’ real-life occupational information and making sense of it for themselves. Practitioners – and policy makers – are invited to see this study not as a suggestion that any intervention is ‘better’ than any other; but to appreciate that they have different and complementary benefits, and should be deployed accordingly. What sequences and combinations of employer and career practitioner intervention are most effective? And is it the same across student groups of different ages, social backgrounds and so on? More work and evidence is needed to answer these questions, and to make our careers programmes as effective as we want – and need – them to be.