I have recently come home from the International Centre for Career Development in Public Policy (ICCDPP) symposium in Tromsø, Norway. This was an inspiring event, and it was refreshing to meet colleagues from all over the world who share common concerns and motivations. It was also good to see the strong presence and leadership provided by the Canadian contingent. The outcome of the event was a very positive Communiqué.
I was struck that most countries seem to see the purpose of career development largely in economic terms. Governments see career services as contributing primarily to the efficient operation of the labour market and the development of skills for a changing workforce. That would be okay if it didn’t mean that other priorities were getting squeezed out.
In the early years of the 21st century, international reviews of career policy conducted on behalf of the OECD, the World Bank and the European Union identified three main aims that governments have in mind: labour market goals, educational goals and social equity goals (Watts & Sultana, 2014). There appears to have been some hollowing out since the banking crisis, and economic priorities have begun to dominate.
“… most countries seem to see the purpose of career development largely in economic terms.”
The time is right for a rebalancing. Whilst retaining an important economic role for career development, I would like to see a stronger social role articulated to policymakers by our profession. We should focus not just on what governments actually do, but also on what they could potentially do. For this reason, I am proposing that we think in terms of six main types of goals for career development policy.
- Labour market goals. Even within this primarily economic category, there is a social role for career development professionals in terms of promoting decent work. Policy discourses tend to drift into talking about people as if they exist solely to contribute to national economic performance as measured by GDP. That is not what they were put on Earth for, and we should balance this by also thinking in terms of how the economy serves the needs of individuals to survive and lead a meaningful and rewarding life.
- Educational goals. To the extent that learning does feature in the policy discussion, it is largely in terms of how career development services enable people to develop skills for work. Some international bodies talk about career development as if it were just a supporting function of vocational education and training, with the ultimate aim of serving the labour market. This is not the whole story. People choose to study for many reasons including personal growth, cultural enrichment and developing a sense of identity.
- Social equity goals. Career development has a well-established role to support gender equality and to facilitate access to opportunities for sub-groups in society who can be marginalised including ethnic minorities, migrants, disabled people, older workers, LGBT, rural and island communities, and so on. It also has a role in combatting poverty and promoting social mobility.
- Health and well-being goals. Experiences of work and learning are important determinants of health. Career development experiences are strongly connected to well-being outcomes. I have been working to raise awareness of the potential role for career services to contribute to public mental health (Robertson, 2013).
- Environmental goals. Economies around the world are increasingly faced with ecological challenges that are growing harder to ignore, particularly in developing nations. Peter Plant introduced the idea of “green guidance.” Arguably a little ahead of his time, he suggested addressing environmental issues represented a major shift in our thinking about career development work (Plant, 2014).
- Criminal justice goals. As a profession we have (so far) failed to explore systematically the extent to which getting people on the right track can reduce re-offending, and more importantly perhaps, prevent people getting drawn into criminality in the first place. This is potentially of great social and economic value.
These six are not, of course, separate and unrelated. They are deeply interconnected, and pursuing one goal can help with another. Some general points can be made that apply to all of these categories of policy objectives. Here we can introduce the three ‘s’s:
Social justice: Fairness infuses all of these categories; not just the social equity goals. For example, decent work, health inequality and environmental security are all social justice issues.
Sustainability: The notion of a sustainable career can have multiple meanings for us. This refers not just to environmental sustainability, but also to a career path that can be pursued and renewed over time so that it promotes rather than harms health and offers an economically sustainable lifestyle.
Societal change: Career services must to some extent respond to societal change – following along behind to help clear up the mess caused by unemployment, environmental degradation and injustice. But they could also get ahead of the curve to prevent problems before they arise by helping pro-actively drive social change (e.g. by promoting opportunities in ecologically friendly industries, or gender equality).
The economic role of career development services will always be of great importance. But we have undersold the wider social value of our work, and we need to get better at articulating this to policymakers. Research and evaluation evidence can help us do this, but we need a clear vision of the potential, too.