Article from Career guidance for social justice, TRISTRAM HOOLEY

Sticking with them: How a targeted careers service in the South West responded to Covid-19

Oliver Jenkin is a Career Consultant who works for the social enterprise CSW in the South West of England. In this piece he looks at how careers practice has changed since the pandemic and argues that career guidance has an important role to play in helping young people to navigate the changing world.

Oliver Jenkin

I will never forget the impact of the global financial crisis of 2007-2009 on young people’s opportunities and aspirations. A relatively new employee in what was Connexions Cornwall and Devon, I remember an area meeting in which one Personal Adviser asked our Chief Executive what our response should be in supporting young people in the face of a growing dearth of opportunities. ‘Stick with them’, she said, ‘stick with them’. She was right. Financial crises have been shown to have a scarring impact on young people’s life outcomes, and even the best careers services cannot avert all of these effects for their clients. That said, the ability of careers professionals to build supportive, pragmatic relationships with individuals facing such crises can sustain them in maintaining motivation and resilience even when faced with the shifting sands of a post-crisis job market.

Covid-19 is a very different sort of event from the 2007-2009 crisis, but some of its effects are worryingly similar in terms of how they are impacting young people. Connexions Cornwall and Devon has long since evolved into CSW Group, a social enterprise that continues to offer targeted careers support to young people in Devon, Cornwall, Plymouth and Torbay. Below are some of the main themes and challenges encountered by our Career Development Consultants and Key Workers in their day-to-day work with clients during the Covid period.

New ways of working

Lockdown conditions prevented most face to face contact with clients for the majority of our advisers, necessitating new ways of working. Much has been made in recent months of the shift to online working, with many employers permitting their employees to work from home and meet virtually using software such as Teams, Zoom, etc. What our staff quickly found, however, is that young people – especially some of the vulnerable clients we are funded to work with by our local authorities – do not necessarily feel comfortable using new technology to communicate in the same way. Some of our advisers reported young people not wishing to use platforms like Zoom or even telephone support, so other methods such as email and text support have been used instead. While a longer process, our advisers have reported positive outcomes using such methods in supporting clients to adjust to the disappointments of lost apprenticeships or college opportunities and a greater willingness on clients’ part to consider other opportunities where needed.

A difficult time for apprenticeships

The serious impact of Covid-19 on the UK job market has been widely reported, with a marked rise in unemployment and some sectors (e.g. hospitality and catering, the arts, non-food retail) being impacted much more severely than others. Most of our advisers have reported disruption to local apprenticeship opportunities as part of this process, with offers being withdrawn for some young people who had their hearts set on this option post-16. What has been of great help to young people in this situation is access to professional careers advisers who have been able to help them adjust their plans to take account of this situation, either by considering apprenticeships in less impacted sectors or full-time college courses to help them build relevant skills and experience in preparation for when the job market improves.

Exam results chaos

One of the greatest sources of anxiety for our clients and their families, after the Covid-19 pandemic itself, was the confusion around A-Level and GCSE exam results this year. Many young people we worked with were unsure what grades they would finally achieve and how this might impact their sixth form, college, apprenticeship or university offers. In the case of electively home educated students, it was impossible for exam results to be calculated, so many will have to take their GCSE exams in October 2020 to receive their grades, thus delaying post-16 progression. One of the great benefits of career guidance this context is its capacity to contextualise people’s options and help them see the ‘bigger picture’. This is when helping clients understand alternative routes to achieve their goals, even if their exam results may be radically different from what they were originally expecting, can be hugely important in sustaining their motivation to learn and to persist in seeking opportunities.

Isolation, motivation and mental health

Unsurprisingly, the loss of regular routine and social contact was reported by many of our advisers to be having a marked impact on clients’ motivation and mental health. Common themes reported include worries about GCSE results, keeping up with studies during lockdown and staying focused with job searches at a time when it was unclear just how lockdown would impact the wider job market. For others, the pressure of not having to attend school or college came as a relief from other social pressures and stressors, but this came with the attendant risk of entrenched isolation and greater difficulty in eventually transitioning into work, learning or training. CSW advisers have responded by working closely with schools, families and other professionals to support our most vulnerable young people into positive outcomes, including those presenting with mental health difficulties, those engaging in risky behaviours and those in the care system. This has been critical in some cases in supporting clients successfully into positive outcomes tailored to their individual needs.

Career guidance in uncharted territory?

Although lockdown is over (for now), it is abundantly clear that the impact of the Covid pandemic will be lasting, particularly for the young. Recovery from the economic effects of this period will be slow and it is unlikely that the job market will be the same one we left before lockdown. In a period of such uncertainty it is more important than ever that young people have access to high-quality, professional career guidance services that can offer consistent, joined-up and tailored support to help them navigate this unchartered territory. The way forward may be less clear for many young people in the South West region due to Covid, but it is not a journey that they must undertake alone.