Airlie Bell, Catalyst Careers and Counselling

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This month FOCUS introduces Airlie Bell, Principal of Catalyst Careers and Counselling. Airlie is a careers practitioner and winner of the Career Development Association of Australia’s 2017 award for Excellence in Career Development Practice (Individual). 

Tell us a little about yourself.

I left Sydney in 1991. Armidale offered interesting work opportunities, while balancing family, work and education. I’m a strong proponent of moving to the regions.

What led you to become a careers

I’ve been a careers practitioner for almost twenty years, but even before I entered the field I’d been fascinated by people and work. My first career was as a management consultant looking at what people did and how they did it. When I moved to Armidale, I worked on the MBA program looking at people and work. 

What interests me is not just what people do, but why they do it. Do they love what they do? How could they do it better? 

When I look at my career, it hasn’t taken a predictable path but, in retrospect, it has had a strong theme – an interest in people. One of the things I love about my profession is it gives me licence to be inquisitive. Everyone has such an interesting story, and I feel so privileged when they share with me.

I currently have what is called a portfolio career, which means I juggle part-time work, project work, unpaid work, and work/life balance. It’s a lovely concept, but I’m still working on what it might look like in the real world!

What does a portfolio career look like?

I have my own company for private consultations, but also take on project work. In recent years I’ve been involved in some large government projects that have brought together a range of stakeholders, including government departments, schools, and businesses to look at issues relating to regional development and youth unemployment. I also teach a postgraduate course in career development, training people to become careers teachers, counsellors and coaches.

What are you passionate about? 

I am passionate about taking a person-
centred approach to careers and the role of education in developing and supporting people’s career goals. We need to take a realistic approach to the changing nature of work, particularly one that focuses on working, studying part-time, and juggling family commitments. 

There is so much that we don’t know about where work is heading. We do know that our jobs are changing very rapidly and, in some cases, unpredictably. We are being told we need to adapt and be resilient, but in this environment it’s very difficult to embark on committing to a full-scale educational program that takes years to complete. What people are looking for now are the skills and knowledge they need in the short term and the ability to jump back in when they need to adapt. 

You’ve been involved in the development of a world first in
education. Tell us more.

My latest part-time role is leading a team of careers professionals to create a new approach to delivering professional development through UNE. Our brief was to design the framework for a university course that would meet all the accreditation requirements for a postgraduate course, yet be flexible enough to allow people to design what they need for their own professional development. We were literally given a blank slate. 

When we recognise a skill or knowledge that’s needed to either advance or transform our career, we want it quickly, and we only want the piece we need. We don’t want to commit time, money and resources for things we may never need.

What did this project lead to?

It led to the development of the Graduate Certificate in Professional Practice. It is unique and is recognised as ground-breaking. It is underpinned by a core unit that guides individuals through articulation of their personal career attributes, goals and career design. Students select units of study that will deliver specific knowledge and skills to deliver the career outcome they are looking for. They are guided by a career professional, who is always there for them. 

Who is the course designed for?

It’s not designed for school leavers; it’s designed to meet the needs of the typical UNE cohort: studying by distance, aged 30 plus, working, juggling family, study and personal development. Study must fit in with these competing demands. By designing something that meets these needs, the course caters for everyone. 

Our students come to study with an abundance of experience and knowledge, which this course recognises as their starting point, so we don’t make them go backwards.

The course has now been taught for nine months and offers optional online workshops where students engage with the career coach and other participants. In practice, this has led to networking opportunities that were previously unavailable. Our students come from varied backgrounds – people in finance, government policy, musicians, sociologists, health and education. The connections and ideas that are generated within the community of study are invaluable. 

What has this meant for you?

Personally, the reward is engaging with so many individuals and giving them the career coaching that will get them where they want to go, and then seeing them succeed. I couldn’t reach this many people individually, but through this course I can reach a wider audience, and yet each one is getting
individualised personalised support. 

Thanks Airlie.

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