Why not all online careers resources are the same

In recent weeks, we have been speaking to a number of careers co-ordinators, head of careers and advisers, who have asked for help with convincing school managers of the need to retain their budget for careers resources.

With school budgets continuing to be squeezed, some careers teams are coming under pressure to use free resources in place of tried and tested tools that only require a small budget.

Obviously CASCAID charges for access to our resources, so I’m declaring an interest up front. But my real concern goes deeper than just protecting our income.

For me it’s about doing the right thing for young people – the right thing for our future workforce – the people who hold the future economic prosperity of our country in their hands. And the concern is that this is being sacrificed for an immediate, short-lived very small budgetary gain.

There are some very good free, online careers resources, but the fact is that developing, and most importantly maintaining, careers resources does have a significant cost attached. We know this – we’ve been doing it for over 45 years!

So while resources may be free at the point of access, there is a cost somewhere.

In recent conversations, there are a few key considerations that careers co-ordinators are highlighting to managers to consider before pulling resources from the careers budget.

Sustainability – careers resources have to be regularly updated. Salaries change, job prospects change, qualifications change, employer skills requirements change. How does the resource that you are considering using keep the information in their products up to date, particularly if their funding route is unclear?

In recent years a number of resource providers have withdrawn from the careers market altogether because they could not afford to maintain their products. In some cases this has left schools high and dry, midway through an academic year – a whole years planning wasted, after that resource was unexpectedly withdrawn. We have seen the impact of this and have helped a number of schools to hastily redesign their activity for the coming terms.

It is also very dangerous for young people to use outdated resources when making decisions about their future. Without knowing the current (and future) qualification and skills needs for roles, and having an up to date understanding of salary and job prospects, the decisions that they make will be ill informed.

Impartiality – one of the common ways of financing resources if schools aren’t paying a fee is through commercial advertising or sponsorship.

There isn’t a problem with this model, as long as it is implemented responsibly. The question, if you are considering a resource which is financed in this way, is what is the primary driver for the resource provider – is it the needs of the school and young people, or is it the desires and profit motives of the advertisers?

These resources need to carefully balance these demands to be effective.

Sometimes resources financed in this way can evolve to become ‘the highest bidder gets the highest profile’. This is not in the best interest of young people or schools.

If you are considering using resources developed on the basis of generating advertising, you should consider whether certain careers and employer messages are being ‘pushed’ to young people over and above others. If so, how appropriate and relevant are these? Do they represent realistic opportunities?

We know of resources that are promoting certain employer profiles and information to students where that employer and their sector employ a tiny number of people, in very niche roles, and in a very limited location. These set an expectation of opportunities which are completely unrealistic because they do not exist in a significant enough volume.

Large organisations with big CSR budgets can afford to pay, what is sometimes many thousands of pounds, to advertise or sponsor these resources. But what about the key employers, SMEs? Some larger organisations are engaging with the aim of fuelling their supply chain with future talent, but this is not widespread.

There is also the question of motivation. Why is the employer paying to have a presence in the resource? Many have very commendable motivations – they want to inspire young people, highlight opportunities in their sector and develop their future talent pool.

Others, however, have different considerations at the heart of their decision to support educational resources. At a recent event, one representative from a high profile food and beverage retailer stated that one reason they supported educational resources was because it is a marketing channel to their consumer base, young people, and because they believed that it helped to improve their reputation with parents.

Another point to consider before you implement and ask your students to register their details for any resource, is how confident you are about how their information will be used. There are examples of what some schools feel are inappropriate messages being sent to students after they have registered to use a resource recommended by the school.

At CASCAID we do not share your or your student’s information with anyone. Resource providers who are funded by other methods may not be able to commit to the same ethos.

Realism – yes, we need to inspire young people. We need to spark their interest in different careers and engage with them to get them to explore different options. However, we must do this responsibly.

Using gimmicky content and promotional methods to promote careers that can lead to fame or notoriety can be successful in drawing young people in, but what are the impacts? Are we setting up young people for a fall by setting unrealistic expectations?

Using the profile of performance careers (entertainment, sport etc) or trendy ‘careers’ such as Youtuber or Vlogger as the basis for engaging young people has risks. How many roles actually exist in these occupations? We did some LMI research on one of the roles that has recently been heavily promoted by a provider of careers resources, and we found not one vacancy being advertised.

At CASCAID we purposely do not promote talent careers. The very nature of these careers means that it isn’t really acceptable to suggest them – a talent or ability is required which no careers resource can ever assess. Information on talent and performance careers should be available (as they are in our products), but these careers shouldn’t be promoted heavily to young people when, frankly, the majority of young people are unlikely to succeed in building a career in that occupation.

It’s not about squashing aspirations; it’s about being responsible. We need to be inspiring young people into considering careers where there are real opportunities now and in the future, and where they have real earning potential.

On the same topic, when considering any careers resource, it is worth looking at how realistic the information is.

There’s currently a lot of buzz about LMI and how it can help young people to make informed decisions. LMI can be very powerful – we use it in our products. But with it comes responsibility to be aware of its limitations. It is open to misinterpretation and if presented poorly can lead to mis-informed decisions.

A number of careers resources are using LMI based on SOC or SIC codes. What this often means is that careers are grouped together for the purpose of correlating data on opportunities and earnings.

Some resources are currently using this information in a misleading way.

In one resource, Beekeeper has a headline of an average salary of £24k. The small print states that this salary is for the entire job group of agriculture etc. In the deep detail there is an acknowledgement that very few people make any kind of living from Beekeeping and that it’s more of a hobby than a job. However a young person is only likely to read the headline ‘I can earn £24k being a Beekeeper’.

This example is not isolated.

Appropriateness – resources used by schools and young people should be designed and developed from the bottom up with that intention.

There are resources which have shoehorned information, assessments and questionnaires, which have been developed outside of the UK, and sometimes aimed at adults.

Resources which refer to using ‘cell phones’ and taking ‘vacations in Europe’ are more obvious examples of resources which are simply importing elements that have been developed for a non-UK user base.

There are also resources which ask young people questions about their interests, which were clearly designed for adults such as ‘taking your child on picnics’ and ‘organising a play date for your children’.

There is then the scenario of the careers co-ordinator who has to answer questions from their headteacher, following a complaint from a parent who’s daughter had been exploring the careers website recommended by the school, which included the career of Burlesque Performer.

Value of outcome – in a number of careers resources (including some of our own), the key outcome is career ideas relevant to the individual student which they can explore and consider. This outcome is based on their answers to a series of questions. Over the years we have refined our questions because young people typically want fairly early gratification – they want results after answering as few questions as possible. But when you are matching answers to hundreds of careers and using those answers to make a judgement against each of those careers, you do need answers to a reasonable number of questions.

Resources that give a compatibility indicator or score after just a few questions are misleading. If you haven’t answered a question which relates to a career, how can a judgement possibly be made on how well suited you might be to that career?

Young people taking away career ideas after just a handful of questions are simply taking away a list of all careers minus the ones that they have been asked about and answered negatively.

One resource currently being promoted to schools gives a compatibility score after just 5 questions. Using this resource music related careers have a high compatibility score for me at the first ‘match’, even though I haven’t answered a question about music and I have no interest in music related careers.

To get a true match, some resources require several hundred questions to be answered. In one resource I lost count after question number 500.

It is unrealistic to expect any young person to persevere and get an accurate result.

Some resources include a huge amount of repetition. For example one resource asks around 8 questions relating to the armed services and combat careers, even after a young person has stated that they are not remotely interested in these careers.

There’s also a question over whether a young person’s interest in activities such as prayer and their spiritual feelings should be used in connection with evaluating their career options. Questions in relation to this are being asked by some online careers tools.

My post isn’t designed to be sour grapes regarding resources which compete with ours – we have no issue with products coming into the careers guidance and inspiration arena – it keeps us on our toes and makes sure that we evolve our products to support young people and schools better. The caveat is that resources should ‘do no wrong’.

Products that are being promoted on a ‘free’ or ‘government backed’ platform will inevitably grab attention. And with time and money limited, schools find the opportunity to save a little budget very attractive.

I don’t want to suggest that free resources, or any other resources, including our own, are the right or wrong thing for any individual school. Every school needs to evaluate the resources on offer properly and see how well they will benefit their students.

Every careers co-ordinator, adviser or head of careers would say that they take seriously their role in helping young people make informed decisions. At CASCAID we similarly take seriously our role in helping schools make informed decisions about career resources.

Hopefully some of the above helps you if you are considering a new resource or if you’re facing pressure to take on resources that you need to evaluate in more depth.

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