How AI and chatbots can deliver personalised career planning

The development of careers chatbots could be considered a threat to guidance practitioners, but the reverse is true, says Caroline Tolond

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Arden University

Arden University
4 October 2021
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Chatbots can be vital tools for university careers services, with one-to-one discussions set to become a thing of the past
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A major challenge facing university careers services has always been how to deliver a service to all students without an army of staff allowing for one-to-one student engagement. Many have gone down the route of embedding employability in the curriculum (or extracting it) to make it structurally unavoidable and, while this approach supports the understanding and development of skills, it doesn’t guarantee that students will engage in personal career planning.

How much individual career planning a student undertakes often depends on the level of career advice they received prior to arriving at university and how much social capital they have − those with less of either need more support with their career planning. And yet, prior to the pandemic, these students were often less likely to engage with traditional, in-person delivery by careers services due to busy lives filled with part-time work, family, caring commitments or commutes.

While the pandemic has placed a great deal of pressure on careers teams to adapt, the sudden adoption of online delivery has also enabled greater student engagement. As HE shifts back to delivering teaching in person, careers services now need to consider what they will retain from the great online experiment of 2020/21.

While this might seem to suggest that one-to-one guidance appointments will become even more important, removing the option for one-to-one appointments from your student booking systems and funnelling students into group guidance sessions could prove beneficial. Many students have similar careers questions and by nudging students into group sessions, it enables these to be answered in a way that allows students to engage with the careers team.

In addition to scaling back one-on-one in-person sessions, another valuable tool worth investigating is AI, specifically chatbots.

I first came across careers chatbots at an AGCAS conference in 2017 during a discussion about the fourth industrial revolution (which, considering current global conversation about the future of the workplace, feels like it has arrived). Four years on, prototype careers chatbots are starting to emerge, with organisations such as CiCi piloting them with adult clients.

The development of careers chatbots could be considered a threat to guidance practitioners, but the reverse is true. Here are some of the advantages:

There when you need them

I’d argue that offering one-to-one careers appointments isn’t a scalable model and will mainly benefit those students with enough social capital to navigate the booking system, beat the rush for appointments and have the time for a conversation with a career professional during office hours. Chatbots, on the other hand, have huge potential to revolutionise careers provision, enabling personalised advice to be delivered at the point of need, 24/7.

Nudging students in new directions

Labour market information (LMI) is a valuable data set for all students, particularly for those from lower socio-economic groups who are not able to draw on information about different professions from their social circles. Chatbots can make LMI accessible, surfacing information on requested career areas and then nudging students to consider alternative options by following up with automated suggestions of career areas they might not have considered. Bots can also encourage students to continue the discovery process by signposting them towards additional resources such as recorded employer talks or careers events.

Helping prompt the right questions

Students often approach careers teams with ostensibly simple questions that usually result in being directed to an information sheet or careers website. Bots can engage the student in a simple conversation to explore the thinking behind their initial question. For example: “How do I write a CV?” A bot might ask if the student has a particular company or job they’re writing their CV for. If the answer is “no” the bot can talk them through the benefits of tailoring a CV and encourage them to explore their career options in more detail, following up with suggestions on how to do this. A “yes” would generate a supportive response, directing them to more detailed careers resources and offering additional advice on next steps.

Safety of the screen

For students who feel anxious about asking for help because they aren’t quite sure what question to ask, or even how a careers service could support them, chatbots provide an anonymous space to seek advice that may encourage further engagement with other elements of careers provision.    

So, does this suggest the death of the one-to-one guidance appointment in university careers services? Yes and no. Yes, as an option a student can self-select. But no, because there will always be space for individual guidance where students with complex situations or specific needs are identified by careers professionals during group guidance or workshops and then referred for a one-to-one. This, though, will be for a minority of students. On the whole, chatbots and group guidance are paving the way for careers teams to engage with more students, enhance social mobility and support transitions to the complex world of work – and that can only be a good thing.

Caroline Tolond is head of careers and employability at Arden University.

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