Why improved careers advice could make NI a better place

Young adults and teenagers are frustrated at the divisions in our society, making Northern Ireland a less attractive place in which to live. Over 40% of those surveyed by think-tank Pivotal are planning to move away.
Yet, while this stark finding grabbed the headlines last week, the number one change called for by young people to make NI a better place in which to live and work was in fact to improve careers advice. This is not, though, a surprise to anyone who has been closely observing our education and careers environment.

Some 45% of young people surveyed by Pivotal said that better careers advice was their number one or two priority for change that would benefit young people. Less than half reported having had good careers advice, with the largest dissatisfaction recorded among girls and Protestants. A previous Pivotal survey of young people found that 79% of those asked believed that careers advice could and should improve.

Poor careers advice is not a new problem. An OECD report from three years ago that examined Northern Ireland’s Skills Strategy placed heavy emphasis on the need to strengthen careers guidance. Like many policy areas in NI, there is a strategy and commitment to make substantial improvement, but no great sign of effective change.

As a parent of offspring still in the further and higher education sectors, my experience of careers guidance both within and outside the school system is quite recent. One of my children had valuable support within school to advise her on how she should gain admission to a good university, but not in the context of how that would affect her later working life. My son had little careers advice within school, while the external advice from the Careers Service — which I attended — seemed to me to be of little value.

I should declare here an ongoing grievance. When I was a school — a very long time ago — I was told by the school’s careers adviser that my work ambitions of journalism were unrealistic and that I should lower them. I should accept, he said, that I would be working on a factory floor. What a careers adviser tells a pupil can have a lasting psychological impact, as well as a material one.
There are many reasons why careers advice is so important. The OECD report considered the role of guidance in terms of the needs of employers and the economy. Are we providing young adults with the skills needed to fill the job vacancies? Many employers are saying we are not.
The OECD pointed out that New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) contained the commitment “to invest strategically to ensure that Northern Ireland has the right mix of skills for a thriving economy, as well as an enhanced approach to careers advice, curriculum, training and apprenticeships to enhance employability and support economic growth.” This is one of many policy commitments in NDNA yet to be felt on the ground.

Just last year an independent review of careers guidance was undertaken for the Department for the Economy by Dr Deirdre Hughes. This not only once again confirmed the need for a significant improvement of delivery of careers guidance, but sensibly also recommended this should start at primary school age.

This connects with other core reasons why improving careers advice is absolutely essential — for the welfare of our population, while addressing the very high level of economic inactivity in NI. Economic inactivity in the UK as a whole is 21.0% of adults of working age, yet in NI it is 25.8%. Those with good skills and educational qualifications are much less likely to be economically inactive.
A recent study undertaken by Dr Anne Devlin at Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute compared educational systems and outcomes, North and South. The report concluded that “early school leaving is two to three times higher in Northern Ireland compared to Ireland and this gap has widened over time… Furthermore, students from more disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be early school leavers in Northern Ireland than in Ireland.”

Our endemic problem of early school leaving and educational disengagement — particularly amongst working class pupils — underpins the high level of economic inactivity and consequent low employment rate compared to other advanced economies. Inevitably this also connects to weak productivity levels, high levels of inter-generational poverty and significant skills gaps within our economy.

Encouraging more pupils from an early age to aspire to worthwhile and rewarding careers is central to dealing with these linked challenges. These have been the findings of report after report, going back several years. It is a symptom of our dysfunctional system of government that our political and administrative leaders can be told the same thing year after year, yet the system and the outcomes barely change.

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