Recognising the Skills of Careers Advisers

telegraph poleSeveral years ago, I paid to have a telegraph pole taken down from my driveway. The workman knocked on the door and asked me if I wanted it cut up or left in one piece. I said that it would be lovely if he could cut it into a couple of chairs and a table for the garden. Strangely enough, he declined. I was only joking but I was reminded of it by yet another article in the press recently. It seems that being asked to do things that are outside our job role or skills set is becoming an increasing pressure.

To what degree should we be rising to the challenge of flexing our skills, multitasking, expanding our knowledge and comfort zone? When do we cry ‘enough!’ and refuse to become watered down, ineffective non swimmers thrust into a turbulent, shark infested sea? Dogsbodies that will leap anywhere for a Bonio? Dare we ever?

There is one particular issue that is bugging me. Here’s an example, a headline (1) I saw recently;  ‘CIPD urges HR to offer careers advice to schools’.   Now, I have a background in careers guidance and I have a view: I’m tired of everyone being urged to offer careers advice – everyone, that is, except those who are highly skilled at doing that very thing. The water is especially muddy around HR.

Let’s look at a couple of other examples before we get to HR.

When is a teacher not a teacher?

Careers advice  is  a current hot potato in the UK. There seems to be a campaign to get everyone else but careers advisers to do it, and then point the finger accusingly at the careers guidance profession when it doesn’t work. Teachers and managers have been in the firing line ahead of HR.

classroom-824120_1280A report (2) blames poor careers guidance for the lack of interest in apprenticeships. It said that teachers were interested only in sending children to university. Maybe that’s because they are teachers, and not careers advisers. A teacher’s job is largely to get educational results. The education system is their area of expertise. A career adviser’s job is to impartially help an individual choose the best option, given their personal circumstances – as my old Chief Exec used to say, a career is a path through life. An adviser will help you decide on the destination and plan the best route.

I don’t ask my plumber to bake cupcakes for me. I don’t ask my mechanic to come and do my decorating. So why are teachers expected to be fully skilled at what is a different profession? It is hardly fair on either the teachers or the students.

Managers suffer too

managerIt’s not just teachers that are expected to be skilled careers guidance professionals while doing a different job. Many line managers suffer the same fate: “Nearly two fifths of UK employees have never discussed their career plans with their line manager leading to a lack of engagement”(3).
You can hardly blame managers for not having these conversations when the same report says: “But only 13 per cent of staff who had talked to their manager about their future with the organisation found it helpful”.  I would probably be disappointed with my plumber’s cupcakes as well.

Of course managers do have some responsibility for career issues in their staff, and many do coach and mentor so that their staff can progress.  They have their limitations too, as do teachers.  We’ll come to those in a moment.

 Now it is HR’s turn

superhero-534120_1280Is HR the Great Hope here? The answer to the NEETs’ prayers?  You are probably expecting me to say no, but actually they do have a role to play. It’s more of a Robin role than a Batman, though.

We have high unemployment. We have new reports that a third of our young people are suffering from depression (4), feel they are not part of society and rarely leave the house. It’s unreasonable to expect HR to be the superhero here, saving the day like some advisory Batman, but they can offer support in many ways. They can (and do) promote apprenticeships and work experience. They can share their knowledge of recruitment, no doubt can tell a good CV from a weak one, a prepared interviewee from a lazy one. Many also support youth mentoring programmes, or contribute to school and college events. Hooray for HR recognising that having a talented, skilled workforce tomorrow means galvanising today’s potential employees into action.

HR make a great Robin, helping us bridge the gap between the world of work and school (or the bedroom). The lines may be blurred between developing talent and CSR, but progress is being made.

Why HR aren’t Batman

batman-310685_1280This is my plea to HR: know your boundaries and recognise when they are being overstretched for political or other reasons. Careers advisers may have skills and knowledge that overlap with yours, but it’s not the same thing. It is a different professional discipline, requiring different training and activities.  I wouldn’t expect you to know all the finer details, but here are a couple of the main issues in a nutshell:

  • Objectivity. A manager’s job is to get results through people, a teacher’s is to get educational results. You don’t need me to tell you HR’s role. All three will have their own agendas or those of their employer in mind. Is it fair to expect any of them to be completely objective? Professional careers advisers are impartial. They work in a person centred way, rather than an employer centred way.
  • Knowledge. Does your manager have breadth of knowledge about career paths and options, including outside the company or industry? Why should she? She is probably much more interested in developing knowledge about her own field, which is relevant to her role. HR practitioners often have the benefit of understanding a couple of industries – HR itself and the sector their employer works in; they may have even worked in a few.

Careers advisers have incredible knowledge of entry routes, job requirements, the labour market, interest assessments and so much more. It’s no wonder that research reports that career conversations with your own line manager aren’t helpful (3). With the best will in the world, your boss is unlikely to be able to help much if you want a career change –  even within an organisation roles and entry requirements can be diverse – and let’s face it most of us aren’t going to confide in our boss if we want to move on.

  • Skills.Getting to the heart of the matter, exploring options, challenging misconceptions, imparting realism, generating action, identifying options, planning a path, reviewing obstacles…. it isn’t always as easy as it sounds. These are advanced, complex skills. Careers advisers are skilled in their roles just as teachers, plumbers and HR are (and yes, I know there are duff advisers out there, but there are a few pretty awful teachers, plumbers and managers too.)

But most of all…


tennis-court-443278_1280It can be hard knowing when to rise to the challenge and learn a new skill, or when to let go and find someone with a different skill set to do it for you. Business owners face this challenge of knowing their boundaries of competence daily. It seems that boundaries are blurred in larger organisations too, but the same principles apply. If the job needs to be done well, and will have a lasting impact, let someone do it who knows how to do it properly or suffer the consequences.

Our unemployed, particularly our young unemployed, need specialist help to get them on their feet. The further they are from fulfilling their potential, the more skills and resources are needed for the job. By all means be the best Robin in the world, but if someone starts expecting  you  to be Batman, I have an issue with that.

When do we cry ‘Enough!’?

When we are having a negative impact on another’s life. When we are not equipped to help.

If you are telling a peace loving young person that their only option is to join the forces (yes, I have seen this happen); if you’re advising a worker facing redundancy how to put together a CV when you only know how it works in one industry; or if you’re encouraging a keen person on Work Experience to pursue a career with you without exploring their talents and interests – then you could be doing them a disservice.

To maintain the professionalism and credibility of HR, don’t assume you need to be all things to all men. Know your boundaries. If you come across someone who needs proper professional careers advice, don’t let anyone tell you you’re Batman.




This article is published in This Time it’s Personnel: Humane, Resourced 2, available on Kindle.

Julie Cooper is a trainer, coach and author specialising in one to one skills. Her company is Spring Development,  Julie’s books include “The One to One Toolkit: Tips and Strategies for Advisers, Coaches and Mentors” (2008, co authored with Ann Reynolds), and “Face to Face in the Workplace: A Handbook of Strategies for Effective Discussions” (2012)

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