Let the right one in

Unleashing Aspirations, the final report from the governmental Panel on Fair Access to the Professions has been released. The report looks at social mobility in the UK and specifically entry into society’s top jobs and professions, such as lawyers, civil servants, doctors, bankers, journalists and university vice chancellors.

Not surprisingly, the report shows that most professions have become increasingly exclusive, with increasing proportions of members coming from families with above average incomes. It criticises the professions for recruitment practices that directly and indirectly discriminate against students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Plus ça change…!

In 1968 Ken Roberts proposed his Theory of Occupational Allocation (or Opportunity Structure theory as it became known). After researching into the jobs of school leavers he proposed that individual choice had less of an impact on career destination than the social proximity of the options available based on gender, ethnicity and social class.

More recent theoretical concepts along similar lines have included habitus and social capital.

The concept of habitus describes the way in which social structures determine individual’s cognitive structures, perceptions, values, tastes and beliefs. See the article by Vilhjálmsdóttir and Arnkelsson ‘The interplay between habitus, social variables and occupational preferences’ in the International Journal for Educational and Vocational Guidance (Volume 3, Number 2, 2003)

Social capital theory looks at the value of your social network in your career success and specifically focuses on the impact of access to information, access to resources and access to sponsorship. See the article by Seibert et al. A social capital theory of career success in the Academy of Management Journal (Volume 44, Number 2, 2001 –  or try here for an alternative version).

Whichever way you look at the issue, whether in terms of opportunity structures, social impact on individual perceptions or availability of social capital, the impact of social status on career options is deep seated and complex. The other thing you get from taking a long view is that very few of the well-meaning interventions since 1968 have made a significant difference to the issue.

Apologies to anyone expecting me to talk about Swedish vampires.

  • How much can you influence the perceptions, beliefs and values of a social group rather than just an individual?
  • Should we be putting even more effort into arranging mentoring schemes?
  • What social capital do we have as careers practitioners which enables us to make an impact on students?

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  1. #1 by John King on 10 September 2009 - 23:22

    Anecdotal evidence suggests that careers practitioners social capital amongst students is not high.

    However, entrepreneurship education has much to offer here. It focuses on student empowerment and the creation of student-led organisations which do have significant social capital amongst students, and are able to influence perceptions, beliefs and values. Beacon students may be influenced individually, thus cascading out change. However, beacon students must be handled thoughtfully. There is something rather illuminating about the creation of student helpers or interns within Careers Services (the inherent problem should be obvious from their job titles). Attempts to empower students may be ineffective or even disempowering. See http://www.oxfordentrepreneurs.com for a more successful and far more cost and resource efficient methodology, and http://www.nacue.com for an attempt to broaden this beyond Oxbridge.

    Entrepreneurship education also supports mentoring in an organic, natural way. Rather than allocating mentors to students, opportunities for students to meet mentors are engineered and bonds are encouraged rather than enforced. This results in lasting, successful relationship building.

    • #2 by David Winter on 11 September 2009 - 11:26

      Careers services are also sensible to gain the involvement of employers and alumni for precisely the same reason. They are often perceived by students to have more social capital than careers advisers. This is probably because alumni are not too far removed from the current habitus of the students themselves – they still share a lot of the same social constructs. In addition, employers and alumni are already within the habitus that the students want to move into. They already know the customs and the language.

      I’m often reluctant to attend employer visits because the amount of useful information you get is often not enough to justify the effort of going. However, perhaps what I should be thinking about is how to maximise my social capital from such an experience.

  2. #3 by John King on 11 September 2009 - 12:14

    I agree, although I’d point out that empowering students to bring alumni and employers into their institution may be both resource efficient and have additional educational benefits. Is it time to move from the overprotective parent model to a coaching model of service provision, as well as guidance?

    • #4 by David Winter on 11 September 2009 - 22:00

      I’m all for empowering students to engage with taking charge of their own career management. But it occurs to me that only a certain number of students would get involved in arranging such things. And who would those students be? Possibly the ones who had already developed the confidence, communication and organisational skills necessary. And what sort of backgrounds are those students most likely to have come from?

      Would we not be in danger of coaching the already advantaged?

      Maybe parent mode isn’t so bad if we nurture those who need it most.

  3. #5 by John King on 13 September 2009 - 00:20

    I’m not sure that the evidence that we have already supports these assumptions. Consider the Law Society or SIFE at Kings (SIFE has 250 active members and counting – and regularly meets senior staff from FTSE100 companies), or the Management Society at Royal Holloway (they have over 300 members and the employer visits they organise are oversubscribed).

    What effect does witnessing senior students (with all the skills you mention) engaging with employers – organising fairs, visits, talks – have on junior students?

    You may be right – but wouldn’t it be wonderful if you were wrong. Isn’t it worth testing those assumptions?

    • #6 by David Winter on 14 September 2009 - 17:13

      They may have a big headcount membership, but are they all taking full advantage of the opportunities offered or is it just the ones who have already had advantages that are getting more?

      Role modelling can be extremely effective, but it can be negatively reinforcing if all the people with power and responsibility are seen to be white middle-class.

      I’m not claiming to be right on any of this, I’m merely asking questions that I think we should be asking ourselves. And I know you are doing the same thing. Thanks – that’s what this blog is all about.

  4. #7 by Aminder K Nijjar on 30 October 2009 - 18:44

    The careers profession could do with a good look at its own make up, approaches and access – practising what we preach is always a good way I think!

    • #8 by David Winter on 30 October 2009 - 23:57

      You could say that, as a scientist, I’m the result of positive action on behalf of The Careers Group. I became a careers adviser as a result of seeing an advert in New Scientist. The Careers Group (or whatever it was called back in the mists of time) were trying to encourage more scientists into the profession so that it was more representative of the student body.

  5. #9 by Aminder K Nijjar on 31 October 2009 - 04:01

    Yes, The Careers Group is a brilliant example of having a much wider perspective. Glad you decided to join!

  6. #10 by David Winter on 21 January 2010 - 18:34


    The Government has released a response to the Unleashing Aspirations report.

    See also Quality, Choice and Aspiration: A strategy for young people’s information, advice and guidance.

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