In a twist to the usual blog posts on Working Adviser, this week I have reached out to our membership community to help answer the question “What skills do careers advisers need?” The thinking behind this is, yes, we can all refer to the careers information that is out there already but does the working practitioner have anything else to add to this? Is the current careers information spot on, or are there things that we, and people considering or training into the profession, should be aware of in order to help become successful advisers? And is our skill set static or how may it be changing? The results were plentiful and interesting.
Softly does it
Without a doubt, most responses referred to the softer skills involved in our role. It is fair to say that many of us define our professional strengths in the effectiveness of our interpersonal skills. After all, we need to be able to reach out to a wide cross-section of clients and put them at ease quickly in order to bring out the best in them. Frequently mentioned phrases included ‘warmth of personality’ and ‘working in a calm, friendly and confident manner’ and the ability to be non-judgemental and non-assuming also featured highly. But something perhaps bigger than all of these things also emerged. Marlene Topple quoted the need for us to be both ‘influential and inspirational’ if we are to make a positive impact on our clients and truly enable them to fulfil their full potential. It seems the image of the stuffy 1970’s Careers Officer is not enough (was it ever?) and that it is fundamentally important that the 21st Century careers adviser is seen as someone more dynamic, more in touch and more convincing.
Communication is still key
Of course, a great many of these interpersonal skills relate to the way we communicate with clients, something that is honed through our training process, but that we should continue to develop through our professional lives. Claire Leslie points out the importance of ‘being able to deliver tough messages when student’s hopes and expectations are entirely unrealistic’. It does seem that careers guidance is often a tricky balancing act – on the one hand encouraging our clients to reach for the stars and, on the other, ensuring that they remain firmly grounded in reality. But the communication skills we use are not just about being able to talk to a range of different clients and stakeholders in the correct language – how we listen, and the body language that we use is often just as important as what we say. Anne Wilson identifies that one of the key skills for a careers adviser is “the ability to listen actively to what the student/client is saying- to hear not only the words that are spoken but what may lie behind them” and stresses the importance of using intuition to ask questions and seek clarification.
The world of careers advice is overflowing with information and many members were quick to point out the importance of research skills and of being resourceful in order to keep expanding our own knowledge and finding out the information we need to accurately assist our clients. One member points out that failure to do this puts us at risk of the very real problem of ‘career lag’ (the difference between what we know, and what is actually going on) hence the need to be proactive with CPD opportunities. But keeping up to date refers to technology as well. As careers advisers we need to be able to produce slick presentations, understand careers-related software programmes, perhaps be familiar with interactive learning environments and, more and more so, be able to use social media to keep abreast of information and developments in recruitment practices.
Juggle juggle juggle
The research I carried out highlighted that fact that careers guidance is only one part of our role. Karen Kuo highlights that as careers practitioners, we are (or should be) master multi-taskers and this means being adept administrators (able to keep accurate records and organise tricky workloads effectively), strong marketers (careers can feel like a constant PR mission after all – an ongoing battle to promote ‘our cause’ to stakeholders in education), first class project managers (for all those Careers Fairs and other events) and convincing public speakers (able to give effective presentations in the classroom or during assemblies). Phew!
A changing skill set?
The political changes in our profession over the last few years have caused many members to comment upon the new and evolving skill set that is required to succeed in today’s marketplace. Of course, all the abilities addressed so far are still prevalent but emerging amongst all the softer skills is a harder business edge as many practitioners are now tackling issues that were previously addressed by careers service manager. Anthony Fitzgerald points out that the ‘key skill at the moment is tenacity, as many advisers in schools need to advocate to ensure students get their careers entitlement.’ This skills landscape is summed up well by Linda Kelly: “As well as the skills we’d normally expect from a careers adviser relating to careers advice with individual clients and groups, I feel that the need for negotiation skills is paramount. We can have all the skills and empathy in the world in relation to our clients, but if we can’t or don’t negotiate effectively with our hosts in schools, colleges, universities and a range of adult settings, our work on a micro level has very little impact.” An increase in the number of advisers now working on a self-employed or freelance basis has introduced the need for a whole host of commercial skills such as contract management, self-promotion and extended networking (through social media as well as face to face). But even for those of us who have remained within larger organisations, the need to be flexible in our work, and to adapt positively to the changes in our profession has become imperative.
So, to conclude….
To do our jobs well, the skillset that careers advisers need is indeed a complex and extensive package. Far from being the jack-of-all-trades that many like to perceive us (or remember us), we are in fact experts in a great many areas. Our skills are both soft and hard, pertaining to people and to information. But our industry is fast moving and we need to take responsibility to keep our knowledge and our skills up to date if we are to remain convincing to our clients and business partners. We need to be flexible enough to adapt to the changes in our profession and savvy enough to understand the increasingly commercial working world of which we are a part.
A huge thank you to the large amount of Working Adviser members who contributed their thoughts to this blog post – too many to mention in person but every response was read with interest and appreciated.