Now, however, careers advisors are, in some ways, more akin to life coaches. Because a job-for-life is now a rarity, and because traditional workplaces are facing almost constant instability due to digitalisation, globalisation, mass migration, demographic and climate changes, and public health crises like the Covid-19 pandemic, careers guidance is necessarily ongoing and, often, about far more than a mere 'career'.
'Traditional careers guidance, says Florian Kadletz, a Human Capital Development Expert at the European Training Foundation, used to be simply about what occupations were out there and how one might apply. But with all the changes in the labour market, people now need to be adaptable, to take on new tasks or responsibilities within a company or to change job completely. And so the focus is far more on skills rather than qualifications because skills are transferable, qualifications are static.'
It leads to a much more holistic, rounded notion of careers advice. In the same way that, because of Covid, the home-workplace boundary is being dissolved, careers advice is no longer about finding a job, but, in some ways, about finding your place in the world.
'Careers support is life-wide and life-long. It's not defined solely around work, but includes leisure, the life-work balance, and non-work related activities, like volunteering...,' says Kadletz.
That change has come about not only because nimbleness is necessary in unpredictable times, but due to an increasing awareness that, in an age of automation, it's human skills – communication, creativity, empathy, emotional intelligence and so on – that machines and robots can't replace. Soft skills are suddenly at a premium and the conceptual framework for a workplace is no longer only about output, but also – according to the EU’s LifeComp competence model – about flexibility, self-regulation, well-being, communication, collaboration and so on.
It might sound hazy to hard-headed businesses simply looking to recruit someone who will get on with the job, but research shows that the smooth functioning and productivity of a company greatly increase if such skills are prized. When workers are treated as unemotional automatons, they have lower commitment levels, less job satisfaction, disappointing performance, more job-related stress and higher absences. The reverse is equally true, that workplaces which value relationships and well-being are more able to retain workers and that productivity, morale and creativity, rather than decline, all increase.
That's why many who work on the frontline of careers advice centre their work not only on the eventual workplace but also on the individual. Elias Geagea is a Guidance and Employment Officer (GEO) at Edde Technical Institute in Jbeil (Lebanon).
'In my opinion, our role as GEOs is to help our students to choose the right career according to their passion. That’s why my first question to the student is always "what do you love?" Once I trigger the real passion inside the student, education becomes his or her pleasure which leads to success in their career. This passion generates the will to learn', he says.
This more nuanced understanding of careers guidance not only deepens workers' connection to their eventual workplace, with all the associated benefits, but also means that careers mentors have a vital, mediating role between aspiring workers and wider society.
'When it comes to career guidance', says Simona Rinaldi, ETF Country Liaison for Lebanon, 'you have to start from the local level and always consider the context as an important level to orient people.'
Rinaldi suggests that careers guidance is often about being a bridge with the footings placed in vastly different settings: it's about offering bespoke links between individuals and communities, between local markets and international ones and so on.
'It's a negotiation role, especially with, say, aspiring women who come from more conservative communities. You have to increase understanding on all sides.'
That empathic, mediator role means that, rather than being simply a traditional signpost to a job, a careers advisor now has a pivotal role to play in inclusion, social justice and the creation of a fairer society.
That intermediary role is also paramount in improving the fit between labour demand and labour supply. In many societies, there are both horizontal and vertical mismatches, the former implying employment at the right level of qualification but outside the educational expertise, and the latter employment within the correct field of expertise but at an ill-fitting level. The horizontal skills mismatch rate in Tunisia, for example, is 74.2%, whilst within the EU's 27 countries in 2019 the over-education rate was around 22%. In Türkiye it was around 35%. Well-informed and well-funded career guidance can reduce the vast inefficiencies and frustrations that such mismatches inevitably cause.
Given that career guidance is now so multi-faceted, it no longer only occurs in small back-offices of schools and colleges or in nation states' back-to-work kiosks.
'Public employment services', says Kadletz, 'are insufficient to cater for all. They focus on the unemployed, but increasingly we're seeing the importance of NGOs, chambers of commerce, unions and civil society organisations in reaching the vulnerable and offering pathways to work and changes of direction once in it.'
What underpins many of these changes is the realisation that employment isn't only about work, but about relationships: work gets done through people and the ways in which they interact. That means that employers are increasingly looking not merely at CVs and qualifications, but at the very human qualities of emotional intelligence, resilience, passion, empathy, listening skills, flexibility and so on. It makes career guidance more complicated, but also far more subtle and profound.