Post-pandemic. The new normal. In the same way that the word “unprecedented” became ingrained in our speech in March 2020, these words and phrases are increasingly present in our conversations about how to collectively move forward in the months and years ahead.
In the workforce and career development sector, we wonder how to provide effective and efficient services in uncertain times, and if there is a version of “before” that we can or should go back to. The negative impacts of the pandemic should not be minimized in these conversations; however, there are also important lessons learned about the resiliency of career practitioners and clients, and the ways in which hybrid service provision (offering both in-person and virtual services) can increase access to career development programming.
In a 2021 report from Blueprint and Future Skills Centre, “situational barriers” such as transportation, childcare and family obligations, clients’ work hours and cost were found to significantly decrease participation in career guidance services. The report also listed institutional barriers for clients with complex difficulties that may include health and wellness challenges and cultural differences. Continuing to offer hybrid models of programming can improve access to career development services by removing and/or lessening these situational and institutional barriers.
The cost of transportation (in terms of time and financial expense) is one barrier to access that continuing to provide virtual services can mitigate. For many clients, their travel time to and from an appointment can be upwards of triple their actual session time. Using low-cost technologies such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and even the phone, career practitioners and clients can meet for the same amount of time as they would in an in-person setting, without a client incurring transportation costs such as parking, gas or transit fare.
Transportation is also an example of a barrier that crosses multiple axes of in/accessibility. For instance, individuals with mobility challenges may be required to pre-book transportation using a Wheel-Trans or Access Transit program that doesn’t align with program times. For those with chronic health or auto-immune conditions, taking public transportation to and from career services can also increase the risk of infection and/or injury. The added anxiety of figuring out public transportation could dissuade newcomers or individuals less familiar with local geographies from venturing out to find their local service centre.
“… there are also important lessons learned about the resiliency of career practitioners and clients, and the ways in which hybrid service provision (offering both in-person and virtual services) can increase access to career development programming.”
Childcare, family obligations and a client’s existing work commitments are several other situational barriers identified in the Blueprint and Future Skills report. Time constraints related to childcare and family obligations are a key factor in the participation of women in career services. For many women and primary caregivers, virtual models that provide the option to participate from home mitigate the need for childcare, which can be costly and challenging to find. For clients who are currently working, virtual options for service can allow access at times that are compatible with their work schedules; these clients can access synchronous (live 1:1 or group sessions) and/or asynchronous services (pre-recorded webinars, videos and seminars) at times that work for them. For individuals who are both employed outside of the home and the primary caregiver, virtual offerings make it possible to balance all of their roles while planning for their futures and the futures of their family.
With overlaps in both transportation and childcare, cost is a third situational barrier to accessing career services, which presents on both the client side and the organizational side. As touched on above, many clients incur additional costs even while accessing career services that are funded by government or not-for-profit organizations. In some cases, the needs of a client may be outside the scope of a service provider, resulting in referrals to paid services (e.g. for comprehensive skill and competency assessments, resume reviews, mock interviews and career pathway exploration). By leveraging digital and artificial intelligence-enabled tools that specialize in these types of services, service providers can expand offerings to the benefit of all clients. These tools are not intended to replicate or replace the important role of a career practitioner; rather, they can complement existing services and increase the breadth and depth of providers’ services at relatively low costs.
By continuing to provide hybrid services, institutional barriers such as physical and mental health issues, cultural differences, and broader systems of oppression can also be lessened. Clients with chronic health and auto-immune challenges may be more comfortable accessing services without incurring additional risks, and clients who are neurodivergent or who have preferred learning styles may see improved outcomes when participating in services at their own pace, in their own space. While certainly not a cure-all for deeply entrenched systems of oppression, supporting the agency of clients to choose how they access services while simultaneously addressing intersecting barriers related to transportation, childcare and cost, seems like a positive step.
Virtual service provision can lessen and/or remove barriers for significant segments of career services clients; it is also true that many other clients could be negatively affected by entirely virtual models. This could include clients with digital literacy challenges and those without reliable access to digital technologies or, clients without safe and secure home locations to connect whose rights to access should not be diminished.
By ensuring a continuation of service delivery models that incorporate both in-person and virtual provision, service delivery agencies and practitioners can meet the needs of all clients. For many providers, hybrid models of service delivery were introduced during the pandemic out of necessity; practitioners made changes quickly to ensure continuity of service for clients at a difficult time. As we move forward, with the benefit of time, career practitioners can strategize, plan and implement hybrid models of service provision that can increase access for all.