COVID-19 looks set to create the worst unemployment crisis in a century, further impacting those already most at risk of redundancy from automation: low skilled workers, women, and young people. As governments provide support for retraining, they should also consider how behavioural science could improve career advice (to help individuals pursue job opportunities with longevity) and motivate uptake and completion of training courses.
Choosing a career and appropriate training requires significant motivation and know-how. There are many tasks involved (from selecting a course to securing funding) and information about training and job options can often be hard to navigate and understand.
When we face a high-stakes choice with options that are hard to compare, we tend to rely on mental shortcuts or “heuristics”. BIT’s research with secondary students shows that career decisions are often made this way. While mental shortcuts can make career decisions more manageable, they may also result in the early rejection of options that are less familiar, feel riskier, or involve more upfront effort. This creates a risk that jobseekers focus their search too narrowly – considering only jobs that look like those they held before, which may be disappearing as technology changes the labour market.
How behavioural insights can help
BIT has shown how behavioural interventions can support better career decision-making; from increasing uptake of career advice to encouraging individuals to consider a wider set of career options.
1. Increasing uptake of careers advice. A quarter of people who make an appointment with the National Careers Service fail to attend, and BIT’s research suggests that low self-belief is a key reason for this. We designed an appointment reminder message to boost self-belief: “‘no one is born with a perfect career. Time & effort can boost your skills & CV…”. This reduced failure-to-attend rates by 24%.
2. Prompting people to consider a wider option set. BIT tested a short exercise – using norms, relatable messengers and self-reflection – to motivate secondary school students to engage with careers advice. Those who took the exercise were 14% more likely to express interest in careers shown afterwards, compared to students in the control group.
3. Boosting applications and uptake of offers. Behavioural interventions may be particularly valuable where individuals from underrepresented backgrounds discount options based on their personal characteristics, such as gender or low-income status. For example:
- Sixth-form students from underrepresented backgrounds who received letters from a current top-tier university student of a similar background, were 17% more likely to apply and 34% more likely to accept a place at a top-tier university.
- BIT trialed 3 short activities to encourage more female students to take STEM A levels. These were designed to overcome the inhibiting effect of stereotype threat and diminished sense of belonging in science, maths and computing, as well as raising awareness about the value of these subjects. The findings (yet to be published) suggest there is value in exploring these approaches further.
4. Increasing persistence and completion of training. Evidence suggests that boosting learners’ confidence in their ability and helping them see the value of training can increase course completion. Previous BIT projects found that:
- Encouraging students to reflect on positive aspects of their identity – namely their personal values – can boost course completion and pass rates by up to 25%
- Prompting students’ support networks to offer ongoing encouragement may increase pass rates – though further testing is needed as a recent EEF trial found this approach did not make a significant difference.
Increasing persistence in and completion of training
Evidence suggests that boosting learners’ confidence in their ability, helping them see the value of training, and reducing choice overload (e.g. through using simple tools to match individuals to relevant courses) can increase course completion rates. Previous BIT projects have found that:
- Encouraging students to reflect on positive aspects of their identity – namely their personal values – can boost course completion and pass rates by up to 25 per cent.
- Prompting students’ support networks to offer ongoing encouragement may increase pass rates, though further testing is needed as a recent trial from the Education Endowment Foundation found that this approach did not make a significant difference.
There is a clear need for effective career advice to help those at risk of becoming NEET or redundant to navigate the disruption COVID-19 has caused to the labour market and education system. Sutton Trust research indicates that career and education advice suffered during lockdown. As the government ramps up support for lifelong learning, good career guidance – that aligns with human decision-making – will be integral to the economic recovery.
We would like to partner with education institutions, career advice professionals, and online career guidance providers, to test behavioural interventions – such as timely nudges, parental engagement or psychosocial activities (e.g., utility-value exercises) to improve decision making and support access to education or work opportunities.