Wednesday 27 October 2010

Turning THREATS into OPPORTUNITIES for Career Professionals…

Since 2000 day rates for outplacement consultants have depreciated cumulatively by approximately 80%. Any owner / director of a careers firm may be deeply suspicious of my reasons for stating this unsettling fact. However, the bitter reality is that the viability of the outplacement industry is in doubt and it time to do something about it.

To turn this worrying trend around relies upon our upskilling, professionalizing, quality assuring delivery and ensuring procurement and HR professionals understand what they’re buying and why there is a ‘duty of care’ involved in the transaction.

The reasons why:

This is an almost infinitesimally complex answer! A key factor is that following the aggressive round of mergers and acquisitions seen in the early 2000s the large firms swallowed-up many of the smaller firms and the great outplacement price-wars ensued. Margins were cut-to-the-bone and very soon consultant day rates started to feel the pain. Back in the high days of outplacement when firms prided themselves on recruiting duly qualified professionals day rates of £400 + expenses were not unheard of but the prevailing average was in the mid 200s per day.

Coming up the present day, a key factor is that in the passed 12months an additional 90 firms have entered the tender lists for outplacement contracts – nearly all of whom are recruitment firms. It begs the question, why?

At this point I’ve got to admit that it becomes increasingly challenging to remain objective and not be seen to be defensive and protectionist as at the end of the day this is a partial view as career coaching and outplacement is how I prefer to earn my living. But the reality is that giving the newly redundant a CV make-over and a half day’s job search workshop does not constitute outplacement, at least a service worth delivering.

The flipside of this argument is that – making sweeping generalisations – recruitment professionals tend to fuel their work by very contrasting sets of values to those of a bona fide career professional. Recruiters are, in the main, business development professionals. Whereas, career professionals would tend to demonstrate a helping, caring, empathetic / counselling dimension in the way they go about their work.

There is also the stark reality of legislation. The Employment Agencies Act 1973 openly discourages any vested interest in taking fees from both ends of the recruitment – career development continuum. Firms taking commissions from organisations for placing candidates in roles have a vested interested that cannot, or should not be ignored, if they are to take an outplacement fee as part of the same transaction. Yet here we are in the UK with some of the most successful recruitment organisations in the world owning and operating outplacement firms as well; albeit separated by ‘Chinese walls’.

Whilst running the London Chapter of ACP International we twice invited the former DTI’s special task force responsible for policing the Employment Agencies Act and twice they stood us up with delegates waiting and primed. How I set the presentation up was for the task force to come and translate the legislation for career professionals and to help us understand the implications for our work. The upshot was that the department explained that taking fees for career coaching and career guidance as private practitioners was illegal and in breach of The Act! I continue in my attempts to lobby Government for clarification on this.

Unhelpful lack of ‘joinedupness’:

So if the former DTI (now BIS) are policing the Act, why then does the DWP tend to appoint recruiters to supply contracts to Jobcentre Plus for delivering job search workshops to the long term unemployed? Apart from anything, this is a clear indictment of the state of the career profession in the UK and a placard for why the career profession has got to now get its house in order.

Another qualification which seems to satisfy many of the outplacement firms hiring consultants is that of the Sales and Marketing discipline. Let’s get one consideration right out in the open, I do not harbour any issue with portfolio workers earning a living from more than once strand of income. Far from it, I am proud to be a ‘portfolio worker’ myself! Nonetheless, where I do feel unabashed is in my professional expectation that anyone entering into the careers profession is duly equipped to offer safe, high quality, career coaching and guidance based upon a reasonable amount of time invested in training and experience tested 'at the coal-face'. At the moment quite literally anyone can set themselves up as a career professional; which sullies the whole industry and drastically diminishes our brand as a 'profession'

No matter what you might think there is a very serious element to providing outplacement consultancy and that is of impartial, confidential counselling. Suicide is a real potentiality of redundancy and happens all-too-often. This might smack of scaremongering, and to an extent it is. But it is aimed at demonstrating a point; outplacement is a very serious business and should never be sold short by the uninitiated, ill-prepared and the professionally naive.

I dare say that in writing this article I will win more enemies than friends. But I have no axe to grind with anyone, when all I want to achieve is to re-establish the reputation of an industry I have been very proud to consider myself a part of for 13 years.

Dame Ruth Silver, has led the Career Profession Task Force in the UK since the turn of the year. She has done a remarkable job of engaging with and exercising the plethora of strands that comprise the various branches of the careers profession in the UK. We wait with baited breath on the Minister’s reactions to the task force’s recommendations given early in October. The Recommendations can be accessed here:

‘Towards a Strong Careers Profession’ -

There is one outcome for certain, whether through a ‘License to Practice’ or a form of ‘Registration’, career professionals in the UK will need to step up to the mark and demonstrate competence if they are to continue to practice at a level seen to protect the consumer on the one hand, and to satisfy the Recommendations on the other.
 The Major Benefits:

• The number one bi-product arising will be consumer safety and a raised profile in society for the career profession. Inexpert raids on our work will end and bona fide career professionals will benefit from a properly delineated professional boundary. As with any other legitimate professional field of expertise.

• Quality standards will go up and the consumer will experience greatly improved standards of service. No longer will a college student sit in front of a so-called Career Coach and have a quick tour of their LinkedIn network passed-off as a quality-assured career development intervention. Giving someone a half hour CV make-over and a cover letter with no longer be seen as an acceptable interpretation of outplacement consultancy specialism.

• The appropriately qualified career professional will soon experience a resurgence as they are regarded as the stand-alone profession they ought to be. But in spite of what owner/directors might think, this will not lead to a collapse in the outplacement industry. It should in actual fact reinforce its status and generate value as a result.

Former President of ACP International, Mark Venning, explained to me a few days ago that ‘employability training’ is neither ‘career development’ nor ‘outplacement consultancy’. It is a low value impersonation of a more full-blown service. HR professionals should consider this when they appoint service providers. As should procurement professionals. I recently posted an article on the HR Director’s Summit LinkedIn Group on the lack of quality assurance standards in outplacement buying and not a single HR professional responded.

Diminishing the anxiety attached to qualification 'Snakes & Ladders':

A few weeks ago I spoke to a hugely experienced and respected career development company’s owner. He was very worried about the implications of upskilling his workforce and having them meet the soon-to-be established standards recommended by the Careers Profession Task Force.

The prevailing misconception amongst my experienced colleagues practicing in the private sector is that they would have to go all the way back to entry level training and retrain from scratch. Very few people, my friend the company owner included, have come across two distinct methods designed to avoid such wasting of time and equally as importantly, money.

Accreditation of Prior and Experiential Learning (A.P.E.L) and the Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (C.A.T.S.) are designed to make the most of your work-based and education-based learning and experiences. So no one who is well into their stride in a given vocation needs to feel in the least intimidated about translating their experiences into formal qualifications.
 The Association of Career Professionals International UK is working very hard to identify learning institutions and partners who can help experienced career professionals to develop the necessary evidence portfolios to convert into relevant career-based qualification frameworks.

This is not scaremongering – it is really going to happen:

In the coming weeks, months and years the Career Profession will be expected to meet a universal level of professional competence as a bare minimum. This is not scaremongering. The Careers Profession Alliance is currently distilling a common set of professional standards and a Code of Ethics. ACP International UK is integral to this dialogue. Therefore, now is the time for independent and salaried career coaches and outplacement consultants operating in the UK’s private sector to mobilise and demonstrate their commitment to this exciting initiative by becoming part of the key professional body representing career professionals in the private sector.

A call to unite:

To quote Dame Ruth Silver: “It is time for careers professionals to work together to provide a strong and unified voice, to show professional leadership and to take responsibility for transforming careers advice for young people, and their parents, who rightly expect excellence in the services they receive.”

To join ACP International:

Our goal is 500 new UK members by the end of 2010!

Attend the UK conference for private sector career professionals on 27th November at The Hubworking Centre, Wormwood Street, London.

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