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Scotland’s internationally recognised careers system

Grahame Smith, former STUC General Secretary and Chair of the Career Review Programme Board, highlights the areas of Scotland’s internationally recognised careers system which are currently delivering effective services for customers, practitioners, and the wider career ecosystem.

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Grahame Smith, former STUC General Secretary and Chair of the Career Review Programme Board, highlights the areas of Scotland’s internationally recognised careers system which are currently delivering effective services for customers, practitioners, and the wider career ecosystem. 

While the full impact of the COVID pandemic on work and the workplace will become clearer in time, it will, undoubtedly, be profound. Young people have faced dispro-portionate disruption to their education, employment prospects - to their everyday lives. This is particularly so for those already facing disadvantage.

As we move out of lockdown, young people considering their future not only face the uncertainty caused by COVID; the implications of Brexit, automation, AI, and the climate crisis will make the challenge of navigating the future world of work and the choices that entails, perhaps more daunting than ever before.

The Career Review could not have come at a more important juncture. There has been much recent thinking on Scotland’s approach to Careers Information Advice and Guidance Services (CIAG) and much good practice to build on.

The ambition set by the Review’s Programme Board is to devise an extensive programme of practical actions to further improve CIAG Services wherever they are offered and accessed in Scotland, that will support all young people in meeting the challenge posed by this uncertain future and to thrive and reach their full potential.

Gathering evidence and insight

To do this, a comprehensive understanding of how the current system is performing is critical.

So the initial stages of our Review have focused on gathering extensive evidence from Scotland and beyond.

This evidence has allowed the Programme Board to understand the current issues facing the system from a wide range of perspectives, most importantly those of the people who use CIAG services, the future challenges we need to be prepared for and the emerging opportunities the Review must explore

This knowledge will directly inform the next stage of the Review; co-designing and developing prototypes for new services and the changes existing services will need to embrace.

Analysis of the evidence

The Scottish Government’s ‘Scotland’s careers strategy: moving forward’ report published in December 2020, established a clear aim of a fully-realised, lifelong guidance system which is accessible to all.

The evidence tells us that, if we are to achieve this goal, there are aspects of our careers system that need to change. That said, these changes will build on what we know is currently working well. And there’s a lot to celebrate.

Areas of success

Around £240 million of public funding (spread across eight key at components, delivered through multiple channels) is currently invested in Scotland’s career guidance system.

It is a system delivered by a highly professional workforce, that offers significant opportunities for our young people to access career services and support with their career choices, which has received international recognition and is often used as an exemplar by other countries.

These services, summarised here, have ambitious goals.

Fundamentally they aim to help young people, whatever their background and circumstances, make choices that ensure the knowledge, skills and wider attributes they attain allow them to contribute to the economy and society and to lead a re-warding and fulfilling lives.

However, the evidence tells us that not all young people in Scotland have equal access to career services. As a result, the disadvantage they face, whether as a con-sequence of demographics, protected characteristics or other factors, is compound-ed and can last a lifetime

A key consideration for the Review is to ensure that our CIAG services are more coherent and consistent, future focused, agile and flexible, genuinely accessible and relevant to all, and contribute as comprehensively as they can to reducing economic and social inequality.

To achieve this, we have strong foundations on which to build.

The national career service

Unlike many other countries, Scotland has prioritised support for careers through establishing and funding a dedicated all-age career service.

A critical component of Scotland’s wider careers ‘ecosystem’, which also includes the range of services offered by colleges and universities, the Developing the Young Workforce infrastructure, Job Centre+, local authorities and the third sector, and of which career education is a significant part, is the national careers services delivered by Skills Development Scotland (SDS).

As both a career service delivery agency and a strategic skills body, SDS’s CIAG services provide young people with impartial advice informed by extensive knowledge of education, skills development and employer demand. It also provides employers, our tertiary education and training providers with a means to promote what they have to offer.

SDS also provides important support for the wider education and employment system, influencing careers service provision beyond its own service. Examples of this include SDS’s work within community planning and capacity building within schools, including though the Career Education Standard and career management skills.


A hugely important element and major strength of Scotland’s careers infrastructure is the My World of Work web service. Since it was launched in 2010, My World of Work has become increasingly embedded within the education and skills system.

The website provides high quality career information and advice to over 1.5 million individuals each year. Almost 200,000 registered users access personalised My World of Work accounts each year to support their career decisions.

Another of our major strengths, and an essential component of any successful career’s guidance system, is the availability of high-quality labour market information (LMI).

In Scotland, there are various sources of high quality local and national LMI, ranging from the sectoral and regional skills assessments provided by SDS, to the bespoke resources of our universities.

Not only does this LMI help ensure that individual career decisions are informed by a knowledge of current and future job opportunities, it helps improve the relevance of the education, skills and job opportunities offered by our colleges, universities and employers.

Ensuring that we can go beyond labour market information and provide intelligence that enables young people to build up a knowledge of work, jobs and the skills need-ed to access them and to develop their career management skills is a key consideration of the Review.


Another key feature of Scotland’s career services is its highly professionalised work-force. There is proven link between the professional CIAG workforce and the quality and impact of the service provided.

While the evidence reveals a distinct deficit in the professionalism of careers services internationally, in Scotland, the maintenance of high-quality professional standards, to which other countries aspire, has been a priority.

In SDS and in our universities, it is a requirement that career practitioners be qualified at postgraduate level

The professionalism, commitment and involvement of our CIAG workforce will be the cornerstone of our future service. The role of the Career’s professional in the future and determining what skills we need within the infrastructure of a careers eco-system will be a critical element of the principles that will underpin the design of our future CIAG services.

Local partnerships

A further prominent feature of our CIAG offer, highlighted by the evidence gathered by the Review, and one on which our future service must build, is our local partnership structures.

This includes the role played by the third sector and local authorities, particularly in widening access to services available to those whose circumstances make them vulnerable to social and economic exclusion and who require support responsive to their needs.

These local partnerships, which include Community Planning Partnerships and Local Employability Partnerships, and the joint projects, networking and information sharing that they offer, provide a vital lifeline for many.

Creating joined up services that together offer recognisable career support is critical in building the employability and work-related skills and other attributes of those who often face multiple challenges, and that can help them secure access to opportunities from which they can develop their future careers.

What’s next?

There are many aspects of the current careers system in which we in Scotland should take pride. However, we are well aware that our system is not perfect. While many young people have told us that the current system has served them well, this view is not universal.

Others have told us that services can be hard to access and do not always meet their needs, which means that they do not feel equipped for the world of work.

We also know that what we currently offer, excellent as much of it is, and as much as it is envied from near and far, has not made a sufficient contribution to the wider effort to reduce persistent inequalities. And it will not will be enough to meet the requirements and uncertainties of work and workplaces in the future.

As a Programme Board, our aim is to offer recommendations for the future of CIAG services that will make a real difference to Scotland and its people. Not only can we improve our services for young people, we must improve our service for young people. Our aspiration is that our recommendations, when they are published later this year, will command the widespread support and commitment necessary to make this a reality.