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Lessons from researching Individual Career Development for Continuing Vocational Education, Training and Learning

Major national and international cross-sectional surveys provide aggregate information on changes in participation in education, training and learning, and longitudinal tracking across surveys taken at different points of time can add useful information on the dynamics of flows in participation over time. A further complementary source can be qualitative information drawn from research that looks at the career trajectories and biographies of individuals working in a variety of sectors and types of companies (large, medium and small). By the means of in-depth interviews it is possible to capture the meaning of evolving career trajectories and biographies of individuals that draw out the forms and strategic significance of learning and career development to individuals. The reasons why interviews are helpful in this regard are two-fold. First, because of the complexity of the linkages between different aspects of learning, careers and workers’ identification with their work and performance as the meaning itself only emerges from ‘telling the story’, not from delineation of aspects of a biographic record. Secondly, it is notoriously difficult by other means to get at the crucial learning that takes place at work that is not usually labelled as learning because it is seen as part of some other work activity.

For example, the Early Career Learning project showed there were some similarities, but also subtle differences, in the ways newly qualified professionals in sectors such as engineering, nursing, accountancy and teaching developed their skills, knowledge and understanding: issues as to how challenging the work was, the extent of support and individual confidence were inter-twined in ways that would have been extremely difficult to uncover in a questionnaire survey.

Both the TLRP Learning Lives project and researchers at the Institute for Employment Research (IER) and European colleagues are doing substantive work on longitudinal tracking of individuals with a special interest in what they have been learning. The TLRP Learning Lives project showed the value of combining rich qualitative biographical analysis with information drawn from a much wider population (in that case the British Household Panel Survey) – interim findings are available from the website highlighted above and final findings from the project will come out over the next uear. The IER researchers and their collegues will draw out the lessons learned from recent data on over 800 strategic career biographies of individuals – based upon between one and five interviews on various aspects of their developing learning, careers and work orientations. This rich qualitative resource will be mined in a new European project. The UK research draws on a a qualitative, five year longitudinal case study is underway in England, which is investigating the nature of effective career guidance as one method of supporting workplace learning. The case study is focusing on how adults (individuals who have completed mid-career professional development) learn to manage transitions effectively into and within the labour market. Fifty case studies have been completed (2003/2004) and clients are being followed up over a further four year period (2004-2008), to track their career progression and development. From these data, together with additional interviews of a further fifty mid-career employees, ‘strategic career biographies’ have been constructed of individuals who were: in employment; had been made redundant; who had taken a ‘career break’; or who were in career transition.
Over the next few years more valuable information will be emerging from these two projects on the dynamics of work-related learning of people over time. However, at this time it is also helpful to take stock of what we already know from existing mainly survey-based research. Other papers map out the details of the underpinnig research, whereas here the intention is to produce a personal interpretation of an overarching map of where we are now in drawing a rich picture of the career trajectories and learning biographies of individuals. Evidence in the following areas needs to be further developed in order to compose a more integrated picture but some of the following individual elements of the pattern can already be discerned.

What do we already know (mainly drawn from survey work) on the influences on individual participation in lifelong learning: People, who would benefit most from participation in lifelong learning often do not appear as a major group of participants. Education systems tend to favour self-directed action in access to lifelong learning resulting in division, and a barrier to learning through self-selection. Arguably much lifelong learning is therefore not addressing the known barriers to participation (unemployment, gender, race, age, poverty and ill-health), even if efforts are made to involve more people in learning at work.

Existing research evidence on barriers and non-participation in learning reveals that participation reduces significantly with age, being economically inactive; those who finished their initial full-time education at the earliest opportunity; and that health, child-care or other caring responsibilities, and that work or other time pressures may act as barriers to participation. However, on the other hand, some non-participation in learning is attitudinal because people are not interested or don’t want to participate. Now most of this evidence is based on surveys of current attitudes towards learning. The type of learning-focused strategic biographical approach outlined above could add real value here.

  1. How individuals make decisions about their career progression  

Analysis of transitions: individuals have differing orientations and responses to changing their work-related roles, with the primary distinction being between those with a strategic focus or an opportunistic outlook. 
The barriers individuals perceive to their career progression are themselves linked to four distinct patterns of how individuals make career decisions. These decision-making styles can be classed as: evaluative, strategic, opportunistic and aspirational. 

Value of guidance increases the likelihood that adults will engage in learning, gain qualifications (or improve existing ones) and progress into work or within work. We also have evidence on the extent to which guidance increases the likelihood that adults will engage in learning, gain qualifications (or improve existing ones) and progress into work or within work.

Issue to be developed further: the extent to which individuals have learned to manage their careers actively and progress their future plans and the most effective forms of support to facilitate this (the production of proactive development strategies).

  1. Exemplification of the different responses in the development of work-related learning and careers     

Two key dimensions here:

  • extent of their attachment to work (whether they identify with their work or offer more constrained commitment)
  • and nature of the opportunities they had for, and their approach to, learning and development.

Interestingly, a strong attachment, or adjustment, to a current work role could act as a career ‘anchor’ from which it was possible for individuals to continue their career development (e.g. through willingness to engage in ‘upskilling’) or else as a ‘chain’ that restricted their perceived freedom of action (e.g. through unwillingness to engage in substantive ‘upskilling’ or ‘reskilling’). We have evidence that guidance can help individuals manage career transitions by helping clients view their current skill sets as ‘anchors’ that can be taken with them on a journey and utilised in a new setting, rather than as ‘chains’ that hold them close to their current roles.

  1. How individuals as actors shape important aspects of their own occupational trajectories and careers, with many individuals taking an active role as coordinators of their personal work biographies. 

We have identified a clear shift whereby employees are actively shaping their individualised work orientations and commitment patterns, which a few decades ago were often more collectively shaped.

Also we identified individuals were actively engaged in processes of learning, remaking work practice and shaping work in the direction they wanted in order to align their sense of self with dimensions of their work-related identity. 

Individuals’ biographies often involved elements of growth, learning, recovery or development as individuals moved between images of what they were, had been in the past or thought they might become, thereby emphasising biographical continuity

  1. Responses to major dislocations in individual careers

While major dislocations in individual careers could obviously be traumatic, where individuals had been able to construct coherent career narratives and ‘move on’ this proved to be psychologically valuable and career guidance often played an important role in that process.

  1. Employee development in small companies

Our work on CVT in small companies highlighted how their success could partly depend on the way they handled, either explicitly or implicitly, two key challenges: how to focus upon, protect and develop their core competencies and how to avoid the gradual development of ‘skilled incompetence’.
Case studies of ICT companies across six countries showed that companies were often quite good at protecting and developing their core competencies. Meeting the challenge of the development of ‘skilled incompetence’ (as outlined by Chris Argyris), where the focus on improvement of current processes and technical development, meant they neglected more strategic considerations, including plans for the professional growth of staff and opportunities to reflect systematically on their ways of interacting externally.
Issue to be developed further: the extent to which small companies are able to develop specific plans for the professional development of their staff in order to off-set the effects of the accumulation of ‘skilled incompetence’.

  1. Continuing training needs of workers in modern flexible enterprises 

Our research highlighted the importance of the development of flexible expertise of employees in order to increase the likelihood that companies can themselves continue to adapt and innovate. The development of a flexible expertise comprises two dimensions. First, the development of expertise should itself be viewed as a continuing process. From this perspective, it is interesting that some companies are explicitly using a developmental view of expertise in developing competence inventories that go well beyond expecting technical proficiency and a commitment to continuing improvement.

Second, flexible expertise could be partly built around recognition of the importance of the integration of different kinds of knowledge. Professionals and other highly skilled workers often find that the most important workplace tasks and problems require the integrated use of several different kinds of knowledge, and this can be particularly challenging for those just 'starting out' in their careers.

  1. Development of new graduates in the workplace

In many graduate occupations key to a knowledge-based society it is often specifically the combination and integration of different types of knowledge from both education and work settings that is often the major challenge. This perspective would also enable people to look at immediate post-qualifying period as a time in which a great deal of learning takes place and to recognise that the degree of support an individual receives at that time could have more significance for their ultimate success than the type of pathway they followed in training. People learn most effectively when starting new work when a virtuous circle of confidence, support and challenge is created.

Growing SMEs were likely to be moving towards a performance-driven business culture, with an emphasis upon empowerment, teamwork, lifelong learning and individuals managing their own careers.  The training methods most frequently used with new graduate recruits were learning by doing; coaching by line managers; interacting with suppliers and customers; and through the exercise of significant work responsibilities.

  1. Bifurcation in labour market regarding career progression and occupational mobility

It is important not to overstate the degree of change in the labour market regarding occupational mobility. Very large numbers of people, once they find what they regard as career-related employment, will continue to remain in a single career or have at most one or two major shifts in career direction (although the number of jobs and amount of time it takes for different people to find career-related employment varies). On the other hand, there are other people in industries, contexts or careers where they do engage in frequent changes of direction. However, this was also the lot of many workers in previous decades. Overall, this latter group is increasing, but not at an exponential rate.

However, the majority of workers are faced with substantive change over time even within single occupations: for example, changes in the patterns of employment, transformation of some occupations and changes in the organisation of work.

For many of our interviewees, their work changed incrementally and the extent of change could easily be accommodated within normal patterns of learning while working.

For others, though their work changed considerably this might be easily accommodated by means traditional to the organisation or occupation, particularly if the job itself required considerable learning while working.
For a third group whose careers develop with increasing responsibility and challenge then engaging in substantive learning is a central component of their career.

  1. Older workers and lifelong learning

It is important not to pathologise the problems that workers, especially older workers, face learning new skills: many older workers do this as a normal part of their job or through their developing career. Indeed problems are most likely to arise in two particular contexts. First, when demands at work change suddenly after a long period of relative stability and workers feel they have not engaged in substantive learning for some considerable time. Secondly, learning new skills can seem challenging when workers are faced with a major career transition, particularly if they are not in work or are about to be made redundant.  

The cases demonstrated again the value of learning while working in helping individuals, not only keep their skills, knowledge and competences up-to-date but also in helping them keep a positive disposition towards learning.

Some prospective policies that could be further investigated in relation to older workers and CVT during the research include:

  • encouraging individuals to engage in mid-career learning and development;
  • give individuals the right to (3 sessions of) independent careers guidance after working for twenty years;
  • encourage workplaces and education institutions to consider how best they can effectively support older workers’ learning, development and work transitions;
  • identify appropriate learning strategies and pedagogic practices that will assist the development and maintenance of older workers’ capacities for working, learning, development and transitions;
  • identify good practice in policy measures, workplace practices and educational programmes in support of the continuing development of older workers’ workplace competence and learning dispositions;
  • give workers the right to a ‘career break’ of say six months to be taken at any time after twenty five years in work.
  1. CVT and lifelong learning

So access to opportunities for learning and development is important, and to some extent these opportunities were more likely to be given to individuals showing a strong commitment to work. However, it was also clear that some individuals were much more pro-active than others in taking advantage of these opportunities. Further, those who were pro-active in this sphere seemed more likely to take advantage of other learning opportunities too. Even those who had not engaged in much substantive learning for some time could find that when they were involved in substantive learning and development this often acted as a spur to a transformation in how they perceived themselves and what they believed they could do.

Upskillling could come through work that comprises a series of highly challenging work activities (for example, project-based activities) or through involvement in ‘normal’ work activities, together with formal training, where the work organisation is changing.

  1. Upskilling and career progression

Upskilling could also be associated with career progression within one company or through development of a strategic career (though switching companies, sectors and occupations). However, it is also possible to develop work-related learning, careers and identities through education-based upskilling.

  1. Dangers of downward career drift

Downward career drift was often associated with those individuals not having engaged in any substantive updating since their early twenties. Substantive upskilling was not always necessary to maintain a career, but the absence of engagement in any substantive learning or development certainly left an individual doubly vulnerable to any change in their career prospects, in that both getting a new job or reskilling could be much more difficult.

  1. Reskilling and redundancy

Development paths of individuals’ learning, careers and identities following redundancy in sectors that were contracting were much more varied. Reskilling was sometimes achieved through self-directed learning, formal retraining or a return to education, but individuals also responded by switching to part-time working, becoming self-employed or going into semi-retirement (particularly, if they were in receipt of a pension).

  1. Downward career drift and health

Some individuals’ careers drift downwards as they struggle to overcome a career setback caused by redundancy or health problems. They might switch to less skilled work and, although this was usually viewed as a negative outcome, in some cases this work was seen as very rewarding. 

  1. Substantive learning and development as basis for career progression

For workers engaged in major career shifts recent experience of substantive learning and development, coupled with a positive disposition to learning, meant that taking on new challenges were just seen as part of ‘normal’ career progression.

  1. Prolonged transitions into the labour market

People experiencing prolonged transitions into the labour market and were using various strategies to continue to make progress, including upskilling, reskilling and active support in managing a range of career transitions.

  1. Self-directed learning

Encouragement for more expansive forms of self-directed learning at work and the build up of and reflection upon developing personal knowledge could be undermined by pressures due to a perceived shortage of time and work intensification in some organisations.  If informal support for learning is undermined by work intensification it may mean that organisations should pay greater attention to the need for self-directed learning to be formally supported.  Employees may need to be given time and space to engage in critical thought, self-reflection and personal development.  This should include opportunities for both collaborative and self-directed learning.

  1. Learning from others

Learning from others is also an important source of learning at work, but again it may be that employees often require support for this form of learning to be effective. Those interested in supporting the development of workers therefore need to be able to draw upon a variety of learning contexts, and need to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses associated with particular combinations of education, training and employment contexts.  The quality of learning environments in companies can be particularly variable, and organisational cultures can either inhibit or promote effective learning.  Similarly, patterns of work may be such that expertise can develop through a productive combination of working and learning.

  1. Working while learning

Four main types of work activity regularly give rise to learning:

  • participation in group activities - including team-working towards a common outcome, and groups set up for a special purpose such as audit, development or review of policy and/or practice, and responding to external changes;
  • working alongside others - allowing people to observe and listen to others at work and to participate in activities; to learn new practices and gain new perspectives, to become aware of different kinds of knowledge and expertise, and to gain some sense of other people’s tacit knowledge;
  • tackling challenging tasks - requiring on-the job learning and, if well-supported and successful, could lead to increased motivation and confidence.
  • working with clients - learning about the client, novel aspects of each client’s problem and from new ideas that arose from the joint work.

Overall then, learning while working was already well established as a major means of development within work settings, but changes to the organisation of work (including greater use of team-working), access to a much wide range of information sources (including through the web) and an increased supply of graduates with relatively well-developed communication skills has meant that learning while working has become established as probably the most important form of learning arrangement for individuals at work following completion of their formal education.

Prospective issues for policy discussion

A range of issues could be investigated further, but a major one in terms of current policy debate concerns whether individuals are responsible for their own learning? Some key themes in relation to this concern are as follows:

Relative influence of policy drivers and individual motivation in facilitating lifelong learning? There are policy drivers at work in the area of lifelong learning; but lifelong learning can also be connected to a conscious, reflective, self-development process. Although ‘push’ factors such as policies and organisational demands can assist in focusing institutions and individuals towards particular policy agendas, until an individual consciously recognises the internal ‘pull’ factors, no matter what stage they are at in their life, they appear to be content not to engage. So the lifelong learning agenda is part of a policy driver which primarily focuses on a healthy economy, but individual motivation is still important.

  • Individual responses to the idea of participation in lifelong learning across the life-course: there is a need to recognise that people choosing not to be involved in learning at any particular time because of other priorities and pressures is acceptable, it is only if this continues for too long is this potentially a problem for individuals and in policy terms. Indeed a number of our interviewees felt that annual CPD reviews were themselves sometimes a pressure ‘making them feel not good enough because they were not engaged in further learning at that time, even if they were doing a good job and were willing to engage in professional development when it was required.’ The biographical perspective is really valuable in this respect, highlighting that, for some people, maybe a message that periodic learning is important and that people need to think about engaging in further learning when it is appropriate to fit this into their lives would be more realistic than the exhortation to engage in lifelong learning, which could perhaps be too easily dismissed as an unrealistic and unattainable goal.
  • Individuals who are seen as ‘non-learners’ could be split into two different groups: individuals that would like to undertake learning but are unable to do so because of external barriers and those that do not want to engage in learning, through lack of confidence, motivation and disaffection. These two groups require very different strategies to get them to engage in learning at times appropriate to their context and their lifecourse.
  • Different approaches to addressing barriers to learning of different groups: key issues may relate to physical and material (e.g. finance and time) issues; structural issues (e.g. around the way education and training is provided); attitudinal issues (e.g. including confidence and motivation); or stage in the lifecourse. A work-based approach may go some way to meeting the difficulties associated with the first two barriers to participation in learning but rebuilding confidence can be a time consuming business and one in which the relationship between tutor and learner still remains vital. There are also a few examples of support being offered that allows for the prospective learner to think through their approach to learning from a lifecourse perspective.

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