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propositions in search of professionalism - part one

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Bill Law
20 October 2011

this is part one of a five-part keynote presentation to the 2011 annual conference of the ICG
the link to each succeeding part is at the foot of each window

a pdf version of the entire five-part text is at...

Bill Law

The lecture is based on a monograph addressed to trainers, policy makers and to the careers profession alliance. Here I’ve pulled out the practical tasks which that monograph brings to everyday work in this field. There are five propositions, each raising questions for our professional associations, the organisations that employ us, our trainers, our networks, and the students and clients we work with.

When I was a teacher one of the most frequently-asked classrooms questions was...

‘please sir, why are we doing this?’...

I could think of two possible answers...

...’because it could be in the exam’ and
...‘because it could be useful in your life’

‘Why are we doing this?’ is still a good question for careers workers. What’s our priority: fitting people for getting ahead in competitive selection - learning for academic achievement? Or enabling people to take charge of their own lives - learning-for-living? To think they are the same thing is to overlook the mess that the academically competitive can make of their lives.

Careers work has its answer to the question: I know of no field which has done more research-and-development on learning-for-living. We have a lot to go on in helping people to realise fulfilling and sustainable lives. That’s what I argue in the monograph. But I also argue that we have been positioned by commerce and policy to do the competitive job rather than the enabling one. And it has curtailed too much of what career workers are best able to do.

So what are the tasks - and the propositions that call for them?...

  • > re-making the deal - because independent professionalism needs comprehending support
    > winning the credibility - because credibility cannot be claimed, it must be earned
    > enlarging the role - because trained careers workers know more than they are in a position to use
    > sharpening the image - because careers work is in danger of being marginalised in its own field
    > pushing the boundary - because boundary setting can be a covert form of control

I'll try also to frame the questions - and, for me, to do so is realise that our future cannot be like our past. We need to do things differently.

1.  making the deal - protecting work-place integrity

The proposition is that independent professionalism needs comprehending support.  It means being able to negotiate with shared understanding, rather than struggling with uncomprehending power.  Making this deal needs people to know who we really are.

personal commitment:  At the heart of that understanding is this: careers work professionalism is a personal commitment.  It is grounded in who a teacher, adviser, mentor or coach is - as a person.  These qualities are embodied - communicated in authentic demeanour, posture and tone.  Clients and students sense it in the presence of that person.  Without it disclosure is limited, and limited disclosure means limited learning. 

I know of no readily verifiable performance indicators for this kind of commitment.  And not all of our work-place managers know how to recognise and support it. 

institutional support:  But the people who run our training courses must know how to recognise that commitment, and support it.  That understanding includes knowing that selecting for commitment is at least as important as training in technical expertise.  Trainers are therefore part of an institutional support for careers workers - providing a professional framework, credible enough to set out how we are selected, how we are trained, and what we have it in us to do.  Without that that framework personal commitment is too exposed.  And without that personal commitment institutional programmes are futile.  That’s the deal: institutional support from the framework, personal commitment from the professional. 

But, where the organisation’s survival is made the prime driver of institutional management, those employers are poor guardians of careers-work commitment.  Organisational survival sidelines professional independence.  The record of both guidance and counselling tells of such counter-professional pressures.  Both need an institutional framework for careers workers which is independent of their employers.  In partnership with trainers, the professional associations - and their alliance - can frame and protect that commitment.

versions of professionalism:  Being a professional is defined by that kind of independence.  But there are versions of professionalism.  Twentieth-century professions protected their independence with credentials.  But this is not the twentieth century - and all forms of protectionism are under sceptical scrutiny.  We would be rash to assume that careers-work is exempt from this kind of probing. 

There is a professionalism which is widely respected - but it is ‘professionalism’ rather than ‘professional’.  There is a difference: while a profession was recognised by its claims to status, professionalism is recognised by its usefulness.  If all the twentieth-century professions were to disappear tomorrow, working people in - all walks of life - will still take pride in that kind of professionalism.  It has been characterised as what enables workers to say ‘no’ to their bosses.  That’s why we need to look, outside our employing organisations, to what the alliance can frame.

So here are practical questions...

‘what people do we need to attract into careers-work professionalism?
‘how do we negotiate that in our workplaces?’
‘. . . on the basis of what support for professionalism?’

part two of the presentation is at

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