Anthony Mann looks at the issue of careers advice with the demands of employers for workers with certain skills becoming ever-more complex.

Two elements of education and skills policy have, of late, attracted particularly intense controversy. Both are Cinderellas of their sectors and the two are related: careers education and adult skills provision.

What connects them is that they are at the sharp end of action to ensure there is a meaningful relationship between the skills delivered by providers and those actually demanded by employers.

Careers provision and adult skills training should be acutely sensitive to the labour market’s touch.

There are indications to suggest, however, that sensitivity levels are falling into evil step-sister territory with scale and volume of provision in both areas out of kilter with demand.

It’s a concern that has been identified by thinktanks like Reform, which recently brought together leading FE figures, including Professor Alison Wolf, to take stock of the issues with a roundtable conversation under the title Adding value in the labour market: what role for ‘second chance’ education? What was clear from the debate is that a crisis is coming into view, not just of short term funding, but of structural change requiring strategic response.

We see people finding themselves possessing skills now unwanted, while employers struggle to expand into new fields because they can’t find the skills they need

In an attempt to get to grips with this change, last month I ran an experiment. The charity where I work runs a free, national volunteering programme called Inspiring the Future. Employee volunteers sign up to make themselves available to schools and colleges looking to help students make careers choices and develop skills for employment.

I wanted to know how many of the volunteers signing up had unique job titles. I was interested in the ways in which work is becoming more complex. Over recent years, a chorus of commentators, led by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), has argued that complexity is growing and it is a problem — for young people, for adults, for education and training providers and for governments.

Analysts highlight the rise of self-employment, small and medium sized enterprise (SME) employment and the ways in which economic sectors can experience rapid changes in skills demand linked to technological innovation: witness online retail, electronic engine maintenance, replacement of people with machines at every multiplex cinema.

Essentially, the argument runs that if the labour market is more complex, then it is harder for employer demand to be signalled and for providers to put on the right courses and for students to choose them.

More complex labour markets increase the risk of skills mismatch. Complexity relates to ways in which technological innovation changes work, the ways that it can and does destroy trades, creates new jobs and rapidly changes working practices. The new wave of digital automation is changing work fundamentally.

Young people have long struggled to understand demand in their local labour markets, making decisions on the basis of aspirations which, collectively, have nothing in common with projected skills demand.

The risks of poor decision making have long been high, it will only get greater if high quality careers provision, rich in first hand experiences of the workplace, does not become the norm.

The risks, moreover, to individuals of getting caught out grows too. We cannot trust the market to provide — where once teenagers got tastes of the local labour market from part-time work, the Saturday job is now dying; and with liberalisation of labour market regulation, employers (predictably) are investing less in training.

Through no fault of their own, we see people finding themselves possessing skills now unwanted, while employers struggle to expand into new fields because they can’t find the skills they need.

The moral and economic case combines to drive a re-evaluation of how the worlds of education, training and work relate.

Which brings me back to my test. I looked at the job titles of 675 Inspiring the Future volunteers who registered over a three-week period in January. How many were unique? The outstanding answer: 670. Economic life is changing and quickly: the need is for a strategic response to the challenges it presents.