The role of career guidance in ESL

Thursday 23 July 2015, by Urška Štremfel

Career guidance (with appropriate methods, contents, early provision, the actors involved) can overcome two important (individual) ESL risk factors – the lack of relevance of schooling and the lack of educational/career aspirations. The systematic development of career management skills helps potential ESLrs perceive their schooling as a meaningful part of their lifelong personal, social and career development.

Research findings show that ESLers often cite the lack of their schooling’s work and life relevance as a factor in their ESL (e.g. Hooley et al., 2011) and that young people with uncertain occupational aspirations or ones misaligned with their educational expectations are considerably more likely to become ESLers (Yates et al., 2011). There is a growing international consensus (Eurydice, 2014; Kraatz, 2014; OECD, 2003; Oomen & Plant, 2014) that these two important (individual) risk factors for ESL can be successfully overcome by providing appropriately organised and implemented career guidance in schools.

The article presents career guidance as a promising measure for dealing with ESL (Eurydice, 2014; Kraatz, 2014; OECD, 2003; Oomen & Plant, 2014). It shows how successfully developed career management skills (CMS) (defined as “a range of competences which provide structured ways for individuals (and groups) to gather, analyse, synthesise and organise self, educational and occupational information, as well as the skills to make and implement decisions and transitions” (ELGPN, 2010)) that result from career guidance help students at risk of ESL understand and internalise the connections between school and work and become more actively engaged in their academic tasks (Hamilton & Hamilton, 1994; Solberg et al., 2002). The article also provides a review of theoretically and empirically considered successful career guidance approaches, which may create a stimulating learning environment for the development of CMS by: a) using appropriate (e.g. individual/group, curricular/extracurricular) methods; b) providing necessary contents (advice and support, skills development, information provision); c) its early introduction and provision through the entire educational path; and d) the cooperation and coordination of various stakeholders in its delivery. The article concludes by stating that appropriately organised and implemented career guidance (provided as either a separate or integrated educational activity) holds great potential in helping students at risk of ESL look beyond their immediate limitations and perceive their schooling as a meaningful part of their lifelong personal, social and career development.


From adolescence to young adulthood, young people are exploring different identities and considering possibilities for their future but, at the same time, they are aware of the barriers that may hinder the fulfilment of their plans (Gottfredson, 1981). Planning for the future (including anticipated school completion and employment) is recognised as an important developmental task in adolescence (Blustein, Juntunen, & Worthington, 2000; Erikson, 1968). Various empirical studies (e.g. Armstrong & Crombie, 2000; Messersmith & Schulengberg, 2008) reveal the important role of positive future-oriented cognitions in adolescents’ latter (educational and/or occupational) attainment.

Various research studies reveal there is a small but significant share of adolescents who express uncertainty regarding their aspirations and expectations for their future. Further, while most endorsed their commitment to the value of education, adolescents with uncertain intentions reported greater ambivalence about the relevance of continued schooling for their own lives compared to those who planned to continue in school (Croll, Attwood, Fuuler, & Last, 2008). This is especially significant for low-achieving students, who are recognised as a potential ESL group. The study by Yates et al. (2011) finds that young people with uncertain occupational/career aspirations or ones misaligned with their educational expectations are considerably more likely to become ESLers by the age of 18.

In these days of economic crisis and a dynamic labour market, career paths cannot be accurately predicted during schooling (Blossfeld, 2005; Gutman, Schoon & Sabates, 2012). Transitions from school to work are clearly influenced by a very wide range of social, economic and education-system-level factors. However, school does have a formative impact on young people’s ability to form career-oriented goals and successfully manage their transition from school to work (Creed & Gagliardi, 2014). Although schools are not the only influence on young people’s careers, they can and do exert an important influence on young people’s approach to their career (Hooley, Marriott, & Sampson, 2011). Strong and well-developed career guidance systems available to all learners have been identified as a promising measure in this regard. Council Conclusions (2015) state that a lack of career management skills may encourage learners to leave education prematurely. Similarly, the European Commission (2015) and CEDEFOP (2010) identified career guidance as one of the most important approaches for preventing ESL.

The main aim of the article is to present career guidance and career management skills as a promising measure for addressing ESL. First, conceptualisations and definitions of career guidance and career management skills are introduced. Second, selected ESL risk factors from the career development perspective are presented (namely, lack of relevance of schooling and lack of educational/career aspirations). Third, the article attempts to provide an answer regarding how to organise and implement career guidance (methods, activities, contents, the actors involved) to be effective in preventing ESL. The conclusion summarises the key findings. The article considers the dominant discussions in the field based on the presumption that individuals (ESLers) are responsible for their own educational and career development. The ways in which this prevailing idea is questioned (by considering that individual low educational/career aspirations and the lack of schooling’s relevance are also affected by family socio-economic background, the quality of educational provision and the general social and economic situation in a country) is not a focus of this article.


To address the article’s aims, the following methods are employed: (a) an analysis of relevant literature and secondary sources. Within this framework, we conducted a literature search of the scientific EBSCOhost and Web of Science online research databases. The main key words for searching the relevant scientific literature were: early school leaving, career guidance, career management skills, relevance of schooling, educational aspirations, career aspirations; and (b) an analysis of formal documents and legal sources at the EU and national levels (EU official documents in the field of educational policy, non-official documents, press releases), an analysis of the national policy documents (e.g. legislation, strategies, reports) in EU member states.

What is career guidance? Career guidance and career management skills

Several theoretical approaches adopt different perspectives (e.g. trait and factor theory, opportunity structure theory, developmental theory, social learning theory, constructivist theory, community interactions theory, career learning theory) to explain how the individual’s career decisions are actually made in practice (for a review, see Lovšin, 2016). Influenced in particular by the developmental theory, the social learning theory and the trait and factor theory, and to some extent also the opportunity structure theory, in the 1970s Law (1999) developed a comprehensive counselling model called D-O-T-S:

  • D – Decision learning – learning about types of decision-making and the factors that must be considered;
  • O – Opportunity awareness – discovering opportunities for education, training, employment, learning about careers and the world of work in general;
  • T – Transition learning – learning the skills needed to make the transition between different levels and types of education, transition to the labour market etc.; [1] and
  • S – Self-awareness – identifying one’s traits, interests, knowledge, capabilities and talents etc.

In addition to focusing on the individual’s traits and competencies, the model is centred on taking into account the individual’s personal experiences when it comes to changing the traits (developmental theory), and the connections between the individual’s decisions and opportunities presented within their social environment (opportunity structure theory). By taking the developmental theory into account, the model assumes that what is vitally important for the individual’s career is not a single act of making the right decision, but the developmental aspect that lasts a lifetime. The skills acquired by individuals through learning in all of these four areas are referred to as career management skills (CMS). This crucial paradigm shift from a one-off decision to the lifelong nature of one’s career also results in a redefinition of the role of (career) counsellors. In this sense, the main task of counsellors has transformed from being someone who matches workers with jobs, trainers, educators and mentors who encourage learning in those individuals they provide advice to. In that framework, their counselling work is understood as lifelong career guidance (Kohont et al., 2011: 28; in Lovšin, 2016).

After considering contemporary theoretical perspectives on career guidance and the DOTS model, which understand career guidance as a lifelong process of awareness of oneself and one’s opportunities and learning about decisions and transitions, different definitions of career guidance have been developed within the European context.

The most elaborate definition and explanation is found in a resolution of the Council of the EU (2004, p. 2):

In the context of lifelong learning, guidance refers to a range of activities that enables citizens of any age and at any point in their lives to identify their capacities, competences and interests, to make educational, training and occupational decisions and to manage their individual life paths in learning, work and other settings in which these capacities and competences are learned and/or used.

Sultana (2012) explains that CMS (as a result of lifelong career guidance) is a particularly Anglo-Saxon term in origin, but in his opinion Council Resolution (2004) and several renderings of its definition seem to have followed its French translation (acquisistion de la capacité de s’orienter), which overlaps with the notion of self-guidance. [2] Thomsen (2014, p. 5) explains that the understanding of CMS differs between countries and sees as one of the most encompassing definitions the following one developed in Nordic countries: “Career competences are competences for self-understanding and self-development; for exploring life and the worlds of learning and work; and for dealing with life, learning and work in periods of change and transitions. Career competences involve being aware, not only of what you do, but also what you could do, and of how individuals are formed by their daily activities and their actions while simultaneously affecting their own opportunities for the future”.

After considering differences between member states, the European Lifelong Guidance Policy Network (ELGPN, 2014, p. 14) broadly defines CMS as “a range of competences which provide structured ways for individuals (and groups) to gather, analyse, synthesise and organise self, educational and occupational information, as well as the skills to make and implement decisions and transitions”.

The above brief review of how lifelong career guidance and CMS are conceived shows it should not be exclusively understood as the support given to students in choosing which education or career option to take, but that it equally involves psychological counselling and the provision of additional learning support (also see Robertson, 2013). Career guidance may directly benefit well-being via the provision of a helping relationship, emotional support, building up confidence or beliefs in one’s competence, promoting optimism via identifying future goals, and defining vocational identity (Robertson, 2013: 259). [3] In this way, guidance should interrelatedly empower students for their career, personal and social development (see Blount, 2012; Štremfel & Lovšin, 2016).

How can CMS overcome selected ESL factors? The lack of relevance of schooling and career aspirations as ESL risk factors

Various factors at the individual, school and system level have been identified as being related to ESL. Research shows that students’ well-developed career competencies (appropriately supported at all levels) are an important protective factor for ESL (Meijers, Kuijpers, & Gundy, 2013). It is recognised that career education mainly addresses two important and interrelated (individual) risk factors for ESL: the lack of relevance of schooling and the lack of career aspirations. Different studies (e.g. Hamilton & Hamilton, 1994; Lamb & Rice, 2008; Schargel & Smink, 2001; Solberg et al., 2002) also pointed to various other positive effects of career education [4] in this regard: overcoming the sense of disconnection, improving one’s learning motivation, increasing personal and social competencies and self-esteem, acquiring a range of knowledge and skills related to employment and work, raising academic achievement and consequently enhancing school completion and reducing drop outs.

Lack of relevance of schooling

One main reason that young people leave school early is identified as failing to perceive the relevance of their school education (perceived lack of suitability of curricula) for their everyday life, interests and career prospects (Byrne & Smyth, 2010). ACTE (2007) reports that many students lose their interest and motivation in education because the cur¬riculum does not seem to have real-world applications. Academic knowledge is often presented in isolation instead of in a way that shines a spotlight on how the subject is useful in the real world. ACTE explains these findings with the results of focus groups made up of dropouts aged 16–24, with 47% saying they dropped out of high school because the classes were not interesting (boring) and 69% saying they did not feel motivated. When referring to these two findings, the report states that the re¬spondents consistently noted how they had felt that school did not seem relevant. The most illustrative is the statement by one student explaining: “they make you take classes in school that you’re never go¬ing to use in life” (ACTE, 2007). Similar results emerge from a 2006 poll of at-risk US (California) 9th- and 10th-graders where it was found that six in 10 respondents were not motivated to succeed at school. Of those students, more than 90% said they would have been more engaged in their education if the classes had helped them acquire skills and knowledge relevant to their future careers.

Research results show that holding a negative perception of the importance of education and its relevance to ‘real life’, contained in the frequently expressed question “Why do I have to learn this?”, brings important implications for the (lack of) motivation and interest for school and consequently ESL. In order to prevent such a negative perception, it is thus necessary that learning and work involve activities that absorb students and give them opportunities to use their skills, and a sense of control. Benefits may be enhanced to the extent that the activities are personally meaningful and well matched with their individual interests, values and abilities (Robertson, 2013: 258). The role of properly implemented (career) education is therefore to help students understand the relevance of learning for their future life and career prospects.

Lack of career aspirations

Various research findings demonstrate the importance of clear educational and occupational aspirations for ensuring engagement in school. [5] For example, Davies, Lamb and Doecke (2011), in addition to achievement (poor prior learning experiences, absences from school and poor language and literacy skills), refer to aspiration (an absence of career plans, poor knowledge of labour market opportunities and how to educationally access them, and limited networks) as the main factors that trigger disengagement from school and consequently ESL. Staff, Harris, Sabates and Briddell (2010) argue that young people uncertain about their desired future occupation may be more likely to change majors, transfer from one school to another, spend more time finishing a post-secondary degree, or drop out of school. Drawing on the British Cohort Study, Yates et al. (2011) found that young men and women born in 1970 who were uncertain about their future career aspirations when they were 16 years old were nearly three times more likely to spend 6 months or longer not in employment, education or training between the ages of 16 and 18.

Career education intended to help students develop an optimistic plan and outlook for their future prospects is an effective way to address ESL (Suh, Suh, & Houston, 2007) and is particularly important in determining success in later life (Nguyen & Blomberg, 2014). Sikora and Saha (2011) found a strong relationship between having clear and ambitious occupational plans in high school and high-status employment by the age of 25 years. The absence of such plans was shown to be detrimental to later occupational attainment.

The importance of career aspirations for finishing schooling and being engaged in school tasks may be explained by Miller and Brickman’s (2004) model of future-oriented motivation and self-regulation. They contend that students’ distal future goals (e.g. career goals) influence the adoption of proximal sub-goals (e.g. finishing schooling) in the service of the future goals; that the proximal goals lead to perceptions of instrumentality on the part of students exposed to learning tasks (e.g. taking classes, learning a subject); and that perceived task instrumentality, in turn, leads to proximal task-oriented self-regulation and helps determine the individual’s level of engagement in those tasks (Tabachnick, Miller, & Relyea, 2008). The importance of future-oriented motivation for adolescents’ behaviours and their adult educational attainment, in support of the theoretical notion that future-oriented cognitions affect behaviour and play an influential role in shaping life trajectories, was also highlighted by Beal and Crockett (2010) and discussed by Haug and Plant (2015).

Different studies (e.g. Galliott, Graham, & Sweller, 2015) have in particular examined the career aspirations of disadvantaged and low-achieving (at risk of ESL) students. James (2002) argues that students with a disadvantaged background are less likely to recognise the value of higher education than other students, and that students from a lower socioeconomic background set their sights lower than their peers. In their econometric analysis, Homel and Ryan (2014) recognise that aspirations have a positive impact on Year 12 completion for all students, regardless of indigenous or socioeconomic status. Thomson and Hillman (2010) stated that having a plan helps the transitions of all young people, especially those who do not perform well in the early years of secondary school. Therefore, sustained efforts are needed to improve their awareness of what might be possible for them (Nguyen & Blomberg, 2014). This also confirms Rothman and Hillman’s (2008) findings that lower-achieving students report that career advice was more useful. They conclude this indicates that career advice programmes are valued by young people who are more vulnerable when transiting from one educational level to another and from school to work, and that career advisors should continue to provide support, especially to these young people.

How to provide career guidance that is effective in preventing ESL?

In this section, we present different approaches to career guidance that have proven to be successful in preventing ESL (recognising the relevance of schooling and boosting the career aspirations of at-risk students) according to theoretical viewpoints, the results of empirical studies and analysis of good practices.

Career education should include several varied methods and activities, many of which point to the importance of broadening the scope of educational and vocational career decisions in a lifelong perspective. A combination of a wide range of curricular and extracurricular activities as well as individual and interactive group approaches should assure that career education is provided to all learners and simultaneously tailored to their particular needs (Eurydice, 2014; Lamb & Rice, 2008). Different service-delivery concepts have been shown to be successful in this regard: individual approaches (individual guidance and counselling, mentoring, coaching, tutoring, tools for self-assessment, competence portfolio), adaptation of the curriculum (career games, sessions with prospective employers, workshops for learning interview skills, writing a curriculum vitae), external placements in workplaces (work experience programmes, job shadowing), extracurricular activities (thematic summer camps, job fairs), online services (web portals, online learning platforms, apps) (Botnariuc, Goia, Căpita, & Iacob, 2016; European Commission, 2013; Eurydice, 2014; Kraatz, 2014). All of such structured activities aim to encourage students at risk of ESL to see their career in terms of lifelong development, and to look beyond their immediate limits with a view to creating a higher level of meaningfulness on their current and future educational paths (Oomen & Plant, 2014: 14).

High quality guidance activities should provide young people with appropriate content. Taking CMS into consideration, it is important that career education: a) provides advice and support to students to enable them to make the right choices relative to their educational and work opportunities; b) helps students identify their own interests, strengths and weaknesses, develop their individual skills and aptitudes and thereby enables them to manage their future educational and career choices; and c) provides students with sufficient information about educational and career pathways to make informed choices. It is crucially important that all three dimensions are equally pursued and provide a holistic approach to supporting individuals on their educational/career path (European Commission, 2013; Eurydice, 2014).

Although career guidance is recognised as a prevention, intervention and compensation measure in tackling ESL (Eurydice, 2014), various research findings highlight the importance of its early introduction and provision throughout the entire educational path. For example, a review of theory and recent research related to educational and occupational aspirations reveals that important career development processes may occur well before adolescence. In fact, tentative educational plans may be formed in early elementary school (Wallace, 2007), with career preferences being evident as early as kindergarten (Trice & King, 1991). Nguyen and Blomberg (2014) even realised that educational (and career) aspirations measured at age 15 do not change markedly as students grow older, suggesting they are formed early and that interventions later in the senior secondary school years may be too late to influence educational (and career) aspirations. Berthet (2013) claims the career decision is not a one-off event and represents a string of events making up a sequence within a series of career-decision cycles during the entire educational path. It is therefore crucial that career guidance is not only concentrated at the (critical) transition points (from primary to secondary, from secondary to tertiary education), which is currently a general practice in most EU countries (Eurydice, 2014) but is organised as a developmental process on all education system levels.

Understanding career guidance as a developmental process (and not the once-off provision of information about further educational/career options) requires the cooperation and coordination of various stakeholders in its delivery. Here the role played by various actors within the school context is particularly important. Although career counsellors in most EU countries are recognised as the key persons responsible for providing career guidance in schools (Eurydice, 2014), they cannot cover all of the above-mentioned important (developmental) activities and contents (Carr & Galassi, 2012; Knight, 2015). As important adults in students’ lives, teachers represent an integral part of the development of children’s and adolescents’ personality, and can thus importantly contribute to their personal development and the development of strategies for preventing and resolving problems in school or at a later time in life (Masten & Motti-Stefanidi, 2009), and can also be of significant value in children’s decisions on their own career paths (Vršnik Perše, 2016). The active role of parents (also in cooperation with school staff) in providing at-risk students with conditions (emotional support, advice) in which they will be able to accomplish this important developmental task as well as they can is equally and crucially important (Rutar Leban, 2016).

To ensure the provision of holistic and effective career guidance, cross-sectoral cooperation, especially entailing actors from the world of employment and work (public guidance services, public employment services, NGOs, private enterprises), is vital (European Commission, 2015; Eurydice, 2014: 99-100). In this framework, the idea of work-based learning has been especially relevant in the EU setting in the last few years. Providing opportunities at an early stage to allow students to experience the world of work, for example via ‘tasters’ in enterprises, can help them understand job demands and employers’ expectations (European Commission, 2015: 20–21). ACTE (2007) and the European Commission (2013) even contend that workplace experience can motivate at-risk students to continue their education and become more focused on their future career choices.


The role of career education and guidance in preventing ESL is widely acknowledged in EU discourse and academic discussions. Career management skills, defined as a range of competencies which provide structured ways for individuals (and groups) to gather, analyse, synthesise and organise self-related, educational and occupational information, as well as the skills needed to make and implement decisions and transitions (ELGPN, 2010) among others, especially target two (individual) ESL risk factors (lack of relevance of schooling and lack of educational/career aspirations). A key assumption of the current career development research and practice is that students who have a career plan and are able to understand and internalise the connections between school and work will be more actively engaged in their academic tasks and be more likely to succeed at school (Hamilton & Hamilton, 1994; Solberg et al., 2002).

Different strategies have been identified as being especially successful in implementing career guidance as a tool for preventing ESL. The most effective career development seems to be applied early and maintained throughout the individual’s schooling and delivered in a holistic and multi-modal way (Hooley et al., 2011; Kraatz, 2014). Although the important, positive role of career guidance is broadly acknowledged in critical transition phases, it should not be exclusively concentrated at these points and needs to be fully integrated into curricular and extra-curricular activities from the early stages of education. This can be assured by applying various different methods (individualised approaches, interactive group approaches, online services, work-based learning) and contents (advice and support, development of skills, provision of information). Whilst career counsellors have an important role to play in career education by empowering learners in the acquisition of skills to pursue their interests, competencies and career aspirations, effective career education also needs to mobilise a wide range of stakeholders, including adults important to students (e.g. teachers and parents) and actors from the world of employment (employment services) and work (business, employers) (European Commission, 2015).

As such, career education does not teach concrete competencies (CMS) as much as it can provide rich, varied and pedagogically appropriate experiences and environments that facilitate students’ development (Atkinson & Murrell, 1988). It provides an important tool to help potential ESLers become autonomous creators of their own career and life path.


[1Transitions, as the most important life changes, are recognised as the most risky factor for ESL (e.g. Downes, 2014). A meta-analysis by Baker and Taylor (1998) concluded it was possible to demonstrate that career development interventions help students successfully manage their transition phases and play an important role in the young person’s further personal, social and career development.

[2Self-guidance includes approaches designed to assist individuals in developing skills for managing their own careers.

[3For an insight into the relationship between psychological problems and career choice problems among adolescents, see Kunnen (2014).

[4In the literature, the relationship between career guidance, orientation and education has been obfuscated by semantic confusions (for a review, see Watts (2013). In this paper, we follow his definitions and distinctions which explain that career guidance (as defined in the previous chapter) includes three main elements: career information, career counselling and career education, whereas career education is understood as part of the educational curriculum, in which attention is paid to helping groups of individuals develop the competencies they need to manage their career development.

[5Despite these different research results, Yates (2008) warns that due to the complex and heterogeneous group of ESLers the relationship between holding uncertain aspirations and drifting into ESLer status is not simple.

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