"If education and training interests ignore labour market realities, they just shoot themselves in the foot "
Interview with John McCarthy
- one of the most significant personalities of career counselling, a policy developer and expert in education and learning both in Europe and globally.
John McCarthy has had a very varied
career – he has been teacher, guidance counsellor, university lecturer,
trade union activist, consultant, national agency director, policy
developer at the European Commission (he drafted policy papers such as
the Resolution of the Council of European Education Ministers ( 2004),
project manager at CEDEFOP, expert for OECD and ETF, and currently
Director of the International Centre for Career Development and Public
Could you briefly introduce the International Centre for Career Development and Public Policy? What are the goals of the centre, who are the stakeholders and who are its clients?
JM: The Centre has two main goals: to educate policymakers/developers about the role of career guidance in policies for education, training, employment and social inclusion; and to educate leaders of the guidance community (professional associations, researchers, trainers) on the needs of policy makers/developers. In general they are many kilometres apart!
The Centre’s means for achieving these goals are: international collaboration-collecting and sharing good examples of policies and policy related research through the Centre’s website www.iccdpp.org
; organising international symposia on career development and public policy, the only international forum where policymakers, service managers, guidance practitioner leaders and researchers get together in country teams to address common concerns; speaking at national and world region conferences; Policy Points, the Centre’s newsletter; responding to invitations to writing for international and national audiences, and interviews such as this.
How would you describe the role of career guidance in relation to lifelong learning?
JM: It is very difficult to imagine how one can have efficient investment (individual, family, tax payer) in lifelong learning unless one has good career guidance to help people to make meaningful choices.
We have plenty of evidence, especially from AFPA in France, to show how career guidance prior to course entry produces higher rates of course completion and qualifications and of the significant percentage of people who change their minds about which course they wish to do as a result of such guidance. Choosing a meaningful learning path is far more complex than choosing from a menu in a restaurant.
Lifelong learning is one of the pillars of European employment/flexicurity policy to help individuals to maintain employability and to contribute to both workforce and enterprise development. The efficient investment argument is very strong. One only has to look at drop-out rates from all levels of education and training to understand the loss to the national economy of career decisions that were not well thought through.
Let’s wander a bit into the terminology. How would you define the difference between career guidance and lifelong guidance?
JM: In the past career guidance was viewed as a useful support to help one’s transition from initial education and training to work. That attitude was relevant when there was more stability in the job market and in local and national economic spheres of activity. We are now in a global market and in a knowledge economy and society. Individuals and enterprises need to continually update the skills they have and to learn new ones in order to adapt to changing labour market needs and enterprise competitiveness. To do so efficiently over one’s lifespan, we need lifelong guidance services to support us.
Is it possible to say or even express in numbers how effective career guidance can be and what are the necessary conditions for such effectiveness?
We have considerable research evidence to show that career guidance contributes to improving course completion and qualification rates in education and training and many case studies to show how enterprises benefit from having more employable individuals. The AFPA studies mentioned above are one example; a recent study commissioned by the Educational Guidance Service for Adults in Northern Ireland showed that every 1GBP spent on guidance provision for adults brought a return of 9 GBP for the region’s economy.
It is difficult to find country comparable figures given that career guidance inputs and investment, and career guidance processes, differ from country to country. But we have much deficit data: the education and training drop-out data and loss to taxpayers, families, individuals, and enterprises resulting from badly informed career choices in the absence of adequate career guidance provision.
Imagine, you would be asked by European political top leaders to come with remedy for the current economic situation. What would you advice them concerning development and involvement of career guidance services?
JM: I would tell them bluntly that career guidance contributes significantly to individuals’ employability, to flexicurity, to workforce development and to enterprise performance; and that it helps to ensure that taxpayers’ money spent on education and training will get the best return. Career guidance provision is a major contributor to improving a country’s economic performance.
What are the good arguments to invest into high-quality and present-day career guidance services in order to persuade policy makers about importance of the services? Is it really mainly a question of money?
JM: No government can afford to ignore it especially when public money is scarce and has to be spent wisely.
It is worth noting that the UK Treasury (Finance Ministry) two years ago recommended important investment in the development of career guidance services for adults nationally to support skills and workforce development. That strategy has now been developed and is in process of implementation. It involves a national career guidance telephone service integrated with web and face to face services at local level.
What sort of financial resources offer good prospectives in order to ensure high quality and effectiveness of guidance services?
JM: The UK is the best example that we have in Europe where the public funding of guidance services is tied to these services being externally accredited according to a set of quality standards for career guidance, known as the MATRIX standard. Every country should follow this example. Using feedback from the users of the services in order to improve the existing services is an integral part of application of the standards. It is not sufficient that a quality service is only guaranteed by guidance practitioner qualifications. That thinking belongs to the last millennium!
In the Czech Republic, the part of the lack of the cooperation between ministries and institutions active in career guidance is caused by problems of terminology. Do you face it also from the European point of view? How do you cope with it?
JM: I think that this is a worldwide phenomenon to which the guidance practitioners have particularly contributed, especially in countries where the profession has a status more than it deserves. It is also an old problem: the 1966 European Commission Recommendation on vocational guidance which was adopted by the then European Parliament urged the reduction of obstacles that led to the fragmentation of services, such as differences in methods used by different groups of practitioners and the absence of a common language among practitioners.
It also proposed that in order to improve guidance methods, one should draw on the full range of the social sciences such as education, sociology, psychology, and labour market studies. Part of profession building is the development of a magic and aura around the work that a profession does that first gets captured and then imprisoned in terminology. In the case of career guidance the positions taken by different elements of the profession on terminology are of no interest to the public and users of services and are boring and confusing to policymakers.
The European Council Resolution of 2004 defined career guidance in the broadest terms and this definition was confirmed in the 2008 Resolution and adopted by all Member States. This political definition should be the standard for Europe. It is unrelated to training and qualifications and describes guidance in a way that citizens can understand. The profession often forgets whom it exists to serve: the general public, the taxpayers, and the policy makers.
Good relationships between the ministries (education, labour) themselves are very important. It is quite clear that they need each other to achieve their respective public policy objectives. Career guidance is a shared concern of both.
Another obstacle to improving public career services seems to be a persistence of the old paradigm resulting in neglecting the crucial connectivity between the labour market and education and learning. Do you see ways to overcome it?
JM: It is a two way street: education and training are critical to workforce preparation and workforce development. Investment in education and training depends on how successful an economy is: the more productive and competitive it is, the more it can invest in education and training. If education and training interests ignore labour market realities, they just shoot themselves in the foot.
Let’s get lost in dreams for a minute … How would you describe the career guidance land of promise? What would be the most important lesson for policy makers, for career guidance practitioners and for service users to learn there?
JM: I think that the 2008 European Council Resolution on Lifelong Guidance captures key parts of that dream land for me. It is a place where:
Veronika Nürnbergero, Euroguidance Czech Republic
- all citizens are given the opportunity to acquire the competence to manage their learning and work career paths
- all citizens have equity of access to services which are delivered in an integrated way through telephone, web and face to face services
- the career services and products are quality assured especially through citizen participation in their development, monitoring and evaluation
- guidance practitioners collect data on the outcomes of their work that are meaningful to policymakers
- stakeholders (ministries, social partners, civil society, guidance practitioners) work together in a coordinated way at national, regional and local levels to ensure that citizens have proper access to services, and to avoid duplication and waste of valuable resources.