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  • 27th Jan 2021

Skills for jobs

Helping people navigate their careers with behavioural science

In 2020, the redundancy rate in the UK reached a record high, with low skilled workers, women, and young people among the worst affected. The pandemic has revealed fault lines in economic inequalities and investment in skills and lifelong learning is key to addressing this issue. That is why we were excited to read the Department for Education’s new white paper, ‘Skills for jobs’, published last week, which outlines plans to support people to get the skills they need for employment. 

The white paper covers a lot of ground – from getting employers more involved with post-16 education to investment in lifelong learning – but the government should also make efforts to motivate and support people to take advantage of these opportunities. 

Choosing a career, training course or the right qualification requires significant motivation and know-how. There are many tasks involved (like selecting a course or securing funding) and information about training and job options can often be hard to navigate and understand. 

When we face high-stakes choices with options that are hard to compare such as decisions about our careers, we tend to rely on mental shortcuts or “heuristics”. While mental shortcuts can make career decisions more manageable, they may also result in early rejection of options that are less familiar, feel riskier, or involve more upfront effort. This means that jobseekers may focus their searches too narrowly – considering only jobs and qualifications that look like those they held before, jobs that may also be at risk due to technological advancements in the labour market. 

How can behavioural insights help deliver on the government’s skills for jobs plan? 

1. Improving quality and engagement with the National Careers Service 

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. For example, BIT reduced no-shows at careers appointments by 24% through timely appointment reminders focusing on self-belief. Such timely prompts included messages like“no one is born with a perfect career. Time & effort can boost your skills & CV…”. Other behavioural levers such as social norms, relatable messengers and self-reflection have also been shown to move the dial on engagement with careers advice. For example we found that students who engaged with a self-reflection exercise were 14% more likely to express interest in careers shown afterwards, compared to students in the control group. 

There is a good opportunity to apply cost-effective, behaviourally-informed prompts and activities (e.g. personalisation, social norms, exercises to boost self-efficacy) to digital career support platforms such as NCS. We believe that the NCS should test these approaches within their digital delivery and evaluate their impact on job seeker activity to improve the decisions made by those seeking employment.

2. Increasing uptake of technical STEM courses

Girls are less likely to study subjects such as physics and computing – a problem that has persisted for many years and has subsequent impact on employability within the labour market. One driver of this trend is self-doubt from students. However, establishing belief and self-efficacy can help bridge this gender-gap and provide skills for a generation of women that are highly sought after in the job market. For instance, we found that female students who completed online activities that boosted self-belief and the perceived value of STEM were significantly more likely to state an intent to study at least two STEM A level subjects (from 44% to 46%). This increase doubled for students whose parents also saw online career information that tackled preconceptions. 

Expanding this intervention to help boost the number of girls looking to take technical qualifications in STEM subjects, such as science T-levels, which are being launched later this year, could help tackle gender disparities across courses and broaden the career prospects of many young women.

3. Recruiting more further education teachers 

There are significant challenges trying to recruit and retain high-quality staff in further education, particularly in subjects such as engineering and IT. However simplifying application processes and reframing recruitment messages are cheap and effective ways to boost teacher recruitment. For example, emphasising the ‘challenge’ of teaching rather than the reward has been shown to boost applications to rural teaching posts. Similar insights could be leveraged by recruitment teams to increase engagement with open job roles.

Developing skills across the UK in everyone from school leavers to adults who are retraining or looking for work, is essential for the economy and for people’s livelihoods. The government’s proposal for ‘skills for jobs’ will be all the more impactful for considering how best to motivate people to change their job-seeking and upskilling behaviours. 


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Nancy Wilkinson

Principal Advisor, BIT

Jessica Hunt

Senior Advisor

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