How Diverse Is Your Careers Service? Getting In And Getting On.
Over twenty-five years ago, I entered the careers service and never believed that all these years later I still would be here, not just surviving but thriving. Being one of the first ethnic minority careers advisors I was largely unaware the importance that my culture, ethnicity and religion would have. This article is about my journey as a careers advisor, who challenged the stereotype of a careers advisor as of being, white, middle class and female.
Often, I have been described as a ‘trailblazer’ and ‘role-model’, but my journey was without its challenges. Starting my career in the careers service, I quickly became aware of the lack of diversity and inclusion in the careers service, hence I experience many microaggressions and became the victim of unconscious bias as I felt that my ethnicity was a clear disadvantage. After the leaving the Careers Service, I made a conscious decision to work in a more diverse city, and it was in Leicester that I found my fit, and journey as a careers profession began.
You may have heard the phrase ‘you cannot be what you cannot see’ (Marian Wright Edelman) and I certainly did not see anyone that looked like me. I never ever saw an Asian careers advisor till much later in my life, I felt that they just did not exist, I didn’t even see them depicted in the media, on TV, film or in magazine. When I made the decision to train to become a careers adviser, I was very naive about the lack of diversity in the careers service however, in a way I am glad of this naivety as I felt that if I had become more aware of this, I would certainly not have entered a profession that did not have a diverse workforce that could better address and understand the cultural and socio-economic needs of the clients that they served. As a careers adviser who is male, Muslim and of Pakistani decent, I know that I am grossly underrepresented in the sector, as we know that the vast majority of careers advisors are white, female and middle class and I certainly was not any of these things.
After my degree, I trained as a trainee careers advisor, which included gaining a place on the Diploma in Careers Guidance through Nottingham Trent University and also achieving the NVQ 4 in Information Advice and Guidance. My experience in the Careers Service was very interesting, I remember when I first when I started many could not pronounce my name and few actually wanted to change it to a name they could pronounce ‘Simon’. Other memorable moments were other careers advisors asking about race, religion and culture, one actually made the comment ‘So you’re fasting for Diwali, are you? At that time, it was very difficult to challenge and address the comments and behaviours that were clearly institutionalised in the careers service. There was little or no training provided to staff to change perception or preconceived ideas.
However, despite this I did gain experience as well as insight into the careers service. It was on our days with Nottingham Trent University, where I met Asian Careers Advisors, all from Leicester, which to me was profound, later I was placed in the Leicester office as part of my training and was able to see for the first time, a team leader who was male, Muslim and of Pakistani decent. The work-experience in Leicester was very positive, and I was blown away by how culturally aware the service was. There was a recognition not myself not just as a Careers Advisor but also an individual who possessed additional skills, such as my ability to speak Urdu and Punjabi, but my understanding of culture and religion.
I remember being encouraged to apply to jobs by senior manages in the careers service in Leicester; this was very different to my experience to date. In fact, it was the opposite in the Careers Service in Derby were as all the trainees were successful in getting jobs; I was told that they would not be taking me on. Despite the great feedback from staff and students, in fact one school with a great reputation wanted me to work in the school as I was a great role model for their pupils, but the careers service would not allow me to do this.
Interestingly the schools were I worked whilst in the careers service were predominantly white, this was also positive showing that those with other ethnic backgrounds can also work in roles such as a careers advisor. As my time at the careers service was coming to an end, I was looking to work in a more diverse organisation, or in a city that recognised and acknowledged the benefits and the importance of having a diversity workforce. I knew I wanted to work in a place where my ethnicity would not be a disadvantage.
It was around this time in the mid 1990’s I applied for a position as a workshop coordinator / guidance officer working in the community in Leicester. I was fortunate to be successful. Working in Leicester was completely different to my experience in the careers service, as I remember on my first day, I met such a diverse range of clients from countries such as India, Turkey, Poland and Africa. In years to come I would become the account manager for the comparability of overseas qualifications for Leicester College.
In my 25 years’ experience working as a Careers Advisor in Leicester College, I have trained as an assessor / trainer / internal verifier training other careers professionals in Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG). In 2018, I was part of team that had to pitch in front of a panel for the Nursing Times Award in London, this was part of a project known as BOOST. Which focused on supporting young cancer survivors in their career progression. We were the only careers service to have won the HRH The Prince of Wales Award for Integrated Approaches to Care in partnership with the NHS East Midlands. In the same year I was also nominated for a Careers Champion and was a UK finalist. I also began to write articles and was feature in FE News, Careermag, and the Future magazine, where I was had a feature ‘ Ask Sarfraz’, this was a regular feature column where I offered advice to young adults. This was a national publication which allowed me to reach a huge audience. I was also approached to join the Careers Writers Association which I did.
I remember at Open Days and events where I worked with BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) students and their parents and was able offer advice and guidance. I had to remind myself that I was a role model for many BAME students, but also for those students that perhaps had not seen an Asian person in a professional role, in fact once I actually completed a complete guidance session in Punjabi, to a father and son who did not speak English and had qualifications from India. On several occasions I have been a guest speaker for the local Asian radio station, Radio Ramzan where I offered advice to both BAME parents and young people. There are many proven benefits to having a diverse careers service, including positive role model, but having a valuable insight into the culture and religion of those communities that we serve.
I feel Careers Services fail to attract ethnic minority candidates largely because of unconscious bias and having interview panels that are mostly white, middle class and female, which is prone to the ‘same as me’ syndrome in other words recruiting candidates that look the same as them. Careers Services also need to address the lack of diversity, and actively try and recruit Careers Advisors from BAME background. Quality standards such as Ofsted, Matrix and government agencies need to also look at this as a serious issue when assessing careers services. Your culture and ethnic background should be seen as an advantage rather than a disadvantage. The Careers Development Institute (CDI) should lead an EDI strategy to diversify the sector. In 2023 Careers Services should all be asking themselves the question; How diverse is your careers service?