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careers work - distinct or extinct?

how public-sector careers work thrives alongside private-sector career coaching

Cloud created by:

Bill Law
14 March 2013

Bill Law
the career-learning café

Careers work helps people manage working-life.  The signs in the UK are that public-sector careers work has been seriously marginalised by government policy - some would say pretty-well abandoned.  Neither does it seem to be getting reliable support from employers.  With a labour economy in crisis, surely a service that helps people into work should be a star turn.  What went wrong?

There’s more going on here than blame and complaint can help with.  I’m arguing that careers work needs a new start.  I certainly don’t see extinction as inevitable.  But I do say that the new start needs to be distinctive.

Careers work has more to offer than policy, commerce and its competitors show any sign of appreciating.  That offer can put careers workers into a new relationship with students and clients.  And with its stakeholder and community groups.  It also means expanding its relationship with education.  That would be new - conventional careers work has never needed any grasp of what is entailed in setting up a progressive learning programme... until now.


what’s the problem?

A distinctive new start means more than re-aligning past practice for future use.  Too much is changing, confused and disputed.  Part of the trouble is in the way policy sees public-sector careers work.  Some of it is in how public-sector careers work sees itself...

  • neo-liberal policy’s reliance on private-sector solutions has fatally damaged public-sector careers work 
  • the fit between professional career-development expertise and day-to-day career-management experience is seriously askew

These are changing political and cultural, and not just economic, realities.  The question they pose for careers work is...

can its people re-imagine what it is to start from scratch?

Public-service careers work has competitors.  For an entrepreneur change, confusion and dispute is a business opportunity - bad news is good news.  The news is a multi-billion-dollar world-wide career-coaching industry.  And, like many entrepreneurial initiatives, private-sector careers work draws on what the public-sector has already developed.  There is more than a century of careers-work research-and-development to import - much of it still useful.

So the private is pre-empting the public.  And the safest assumption for public-service careers work is that its twentieth-century status is irrecoverable.  Actually policy support for that status was never that reliable.  But all of that was then, my assumption for now is that a twenty-first-century recovery is within reach. 

I take the distinctiveness of that new-start position to be critical.  And that means not doing again what careers work has always done, but doing what only public-service careers work can do.  It’s why I think there must be a new deal with communities and their educators.


what’s the deal?

A distinctive careers work professionalism can afford to let go of the conventional matching techniques which link personal characteristics to work-life opportunities.  In essence this is pegs-and-holes help, and that is what most people assume careers work does.  It‘s also a good fit with what policy and commerce seek from careers work.  And, according to its own websites, it is what career coaching has imported.  It’s wholly possible that versions of its diagnostic and information processes can appear free-to-access on-line.  There’s not much wrong with all of this.  But it will not take people far enough into the management of today’s working life.

Re-aligning careers work with that day-on-day experience needs more.  The experience is as likely to be...

  • concerned for my child-care as much as for their entry requirements
  • more worried about exploitation-risk than talent-matching
  • wondering how I look good for work if I've never found work
  • more attached to whose respect I must retained than to expert abstractions
  • as interested in work's impact on other lives as its rewards for my own

There’s more, much more, to say about contemporary career.  The point is that for careers work to pull back from who-we-are, and reach out to who-they-are, is to see career differently.  And a person’s control of that story is that person’s command of career. 

As it happens, recounting a story is increasingly understood as our species' default position for sorting out what’s going on.  But advance should tread carefully, narrative is also fashionable.  And ‘cool’ doesn’t so much educate as entice.  So the deal is not to jump onto the narrative band-wagon.  It is to draw on careers work’s own rigorous take on narrative - both its use and its abuse. 

This is no hawking of inspirational stories.  On the contrary, it is critical thinking.  Any narrative, whether other peoples’ or my own, can as easily mislead as inform.  A story needs to be interrogated to where it can become a basis for action.  Not short-cut action, but a discovery... maybe a surprise... sometimes a turning-point.  It is learning for action which is fulfilling, sustainable and liveable.  And it calls for a careers work that meets people where they find things out, and takes them to where they can figure out what's worth their time and energy. 

This is not learning for assessment or recruitment, it's learning for well-being.  The questions are whether that deal can be clinched with...



job-or-no-job careers work

A new start means new priorities.  This is not a defence of conventional expertise, it’s a case for learner autonomy.  Information, guidance and placement leads are available all over, but people need to be able usefully to learn from them for themselves.  And that learning must reliably navigate a way through job-or-no-job change, confusion and dispute. 

The most able and most in-touch helping agencies enable that learning - they are distinctive...

  • seeing learning as readiness for assessment and selection
  • but distinctively as learning-for-living


  • working with individual perceptions
  • but distinctively in their social and cultural contexts


  • taking on careers work’s expertise in economics and psychology
  • but distinctively expanding it into the disciplines of the arts, sociology and ethics


  • calling on bi-lateral partnerships
  • but distinctively forming multi-laterals across the curriculum and among community agencies


  • producing some basic how-to-do lessons
  • but distinctively integrating them into stage-by-stage learning programmes


  • working with the well connected
  • but distinctively seeking out the many not yet finding their stake in society


These are issue for the Career Development Institute (CDI).  Its leadership has already unified a scattering of professional associations, each maintaining its own position.  The question now is...

how does public-sector careers work move on from there?

All of this calls for a broader appreciation of psychology, a more critical examination of economics, a wider grasp of social forces, and a sharper appreciation of ethics.  Tightly-focussed career guidance, offering immediate gains, has too little elbow for such thought.  It never managed to shake off its reliance on auxiliary lessons clinging to the edge-of-timetable.  A new start needs to stand back for long enough, and look deeply enough, to see things as though it had never seen them before.  


living uncomfortably

There is no significant learning to be had inside a comfort zone.  It is a disturbing process of both holding-on and letting-go.  This is not comforting, it is arguing - sometimes with yourself.  But that is not being difficult, negative or disapproving.  Though it must be creatively destructive, so that a promising future is allowed to displace a dysfunctional past.

Argument is good at showing why what is welcomed as fair and reasonable by some can be dismissed as dangerous and misleading by others.  Commerce, policy and professionalism all have an interest in focusing comfortably.  And, for careers work that focus has been more on what is up-close-and-personal, less on what is out-there-and-pervasive.  Conventional careers work has a lot to say about what an individual can offer... might adapt for... and will fit into.  

But suppose that is not all that students, partners and stakeholders need to talk about.  What if they need acknowledgement of how things stack up differently when you look around a bit - taking account of what is going on in...

  • the interview? - yes, but what about...
  • the learning-programme surrounding it? - yes, but what about...
  • the neighbourhood and its culture? - yes, but what about...
  • the region’s communities and their work-life? - yes, but what about...
  • the continent positioned in a global economy?

Any helping agency’s understanding of what is going on in career depends on what its people are ready to face up to - and where they want to hide.

And the future of any helping profession depends on how many uncomfortable questions it is prepared to ask.  But, more importantly, that future depends on who it is prepared to turn to for the answers...

is this where you come in?


the evidence for the argument here is in a monograph:

future careers work
distinct or extinct?

you can get frequent updates at

 and you can say below whether you’ve found anything  which is fair and reasonable
- and dangerous and misleading

Extra content

Embedded Content


Jonathan Owen
7:44pm 6 April 2013

                                               can its people re-imagine what it is to start from scratch?

I had the pleasure of being invited to a design university in Milan, NABA, last year to promote to my students. I still clearly remember a description of their teaching philosophy as one of where "existing design is destroyed" (with an emphasis on destroy!) - much design they stated is based on developing the current form; fascinating concept and why not apply it to organisations?

Having met so few people (I cannot recall 1 person) who relays positive memories of their career guidance from school, perhaps having to start from scratch was needed - will leadership strike forth though?

How close is narrative to dream? - are we the British comfortable with "the dream" or are we will still stuck in Victorian industrial employment mentality? Based in the former Soviet Union I can vouch for societies being stuck in former mentalities - what was it Freud who said, "if we forget the past we are destined to repeat it"....?

I spent a year observing soul destroying "matching", 1 day a week seconded to South Tottenham job centre, witnessing often broken people being bulldozed into a job before our organisation retrained, through a US welfare company - guidance based largely on dreams then pragmatic action; clients spent a long time thinking about who they were before having to consider what hole they might fit into and what hole they wanted to be in in 10 years time.

Does the government think pegs-and-holes will foster creativity, innovation and subsequent competitive advantage from doing things other people haven't done yet? Will the current focus on knowledge in the curriculum lead to 'psychological bigotry'?




Bill Law
12:35pm 8 April 2013

Thanks Jonathan - a lot of experience and thought in those four paragraphs!

I get the idea of 'creative destruction' from economist Joseph Schumpeter.  He attracts a lot of right-wing citations, but he was actually quite left-wing.

And your linking of narrative to dream is something I’ve never seen before.  Narrative is our species’ default method for sorting things out.  And so is dreaming.   All the dreams I remember are stories.  I think you’ve got a thought worth developing there.

I’m just finishing an exhaustive piece on ‘distinct or extinct’ - I’ll put the url here soon.  I mean it to be a wake-up, not a soporific.  We’ll see.

You’ve set some hares running.  Let’s see if any get chased.

Good, as always, to hear from you


Jonathan Owen
10:32am 14 April 2013


Thanks for the feedback Bill, good to keep in touch with careers thinking in the UK; have been thinking more about my understanding of narrative and dream - the training I mentioned was very much focused on imagination I think (we didn't go into the actual mechanics of it), and gettting the clients in the right place to imagine; I found doing this with clients at the end of their working age could be unpleasant at times though, as they realised what they could have done in earlier years.

Thinking about this further brings to mind Robert Bly's "Iron John" and the story of the 'golden thread', being used to escape the labarynth after the slaying of the minotaur, a great story! - the thread was unravelled and used to mark the way out; Bly from memory suggests the myth is about being brave and grabbing hold. Is that what we are looking for within clients? (and oursleves!) - once that moment is reached, the real thread is discovered, a realisation about what could be and what we could do, individuals have a sense of purpose in their "career"? A big difference from considering the labour market at 16 - learning how to compromise ourselves before we are fully formed; yes there is financial reality, but likewise, its a global world with lots of different things to do. For me the difficult part working with young people is helping them discover their thread and not some other idea they've picked up elsewhere. How does this all fit in with narrative? 

Thought a little about how this connects to self-concept and how we have to sift through various ideas and possible identities - a kind of sifting "self-concept" from "ego-concept".


Another point about the UK, working internationally, from my perspective Britains career mentality within education is so industrial as I mentioned above:  a fellow counselor at a local American international school here in Almaty  couldn't understand how students in the UK go into medicine at 18 - even for courses as specialised as that, in the US, students continue a broad education to continue personal development before the major....

The counter argument to all this is I can see - " we need to support the economy", the ebacc ect,  but, surely all the innovation would prosper more through getting the collective imagination going as proposed through the narrative approach?



Bill Law
8:08am 15 April 2013

More intriguing thoughts here Jonathan.  Thanks!

What you say about ‘threads’, ‘themes’ and ‘self-concepts’ puts me in mind of constructivism.  Careers work has imported a fair few such ideas, about people attributing meaning to experience.  They are dominantly psychological - rooted in inner life.

And most constructivist  thinking seems to me to invite a narrativised variant of matching theory...

 ‘...if this is how you see things, why don’t you think about work in ...’

It lends itself to individual face-to-face work. 

But work is done, with, for and in response to other people.  It’s why I draw on Jean Piaget as a constructivist source.  His account is of a struggle, from infancy, to make sense of what other people do and say.  It has survival value - for building trust and mutual dependence in high-risk situations. 

Jean Piaget dates back some decades, but he is currently getting attention.  He is interested in stage-by-stage learning - his ideas are used in curriculum development.  Careers work has not shown much inclination to get into the complexities of curriculum.   I can’t see how, in current conditions, it can move on without doing something about that. 

 I make these points - among others! - in a downloadable monograph...

future careers work
distinct or extinct?

But I don't know enough about ‘golden threads’ and ‘Iron John’.  I hope you can find time to write up your thoughts.  You certainly make me think if the term ‘ego-concept’ might have a future,  You’re breaking new ground.  Much needed. 

And this is an innovation website.

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