By Hannah Goff
BBC News education reporter
Careers advice used to be the sole responsibility of schools
Government-backed careers advice for youngsters and adults is patchy and needs improvement, research suggests.
A team of "mystery shoppers" rated as "inadequate" face-to-face advice given to young people in Connexions centres.
They found adult careers services offered by Nextstep to those with few qualifications were usually poor.
The Department for Children, Schools and Families acknowledged that careers advice often fell short of what was expected and said changes were ahead.
The research was commissioned by educational organisation Edge and the Skills Commission, which looks at how best to improve the nation's skills and has been hearing evidence on the issue for the past six months.
It is due to give its formal report on Tuesday.
A team of six "mystery shoppers" was sent to contact each of the services by the different methods available.
They went through a number of scenarios with each and reported back on what they found.
The mystery shoppers said the face-to-face service offered by Connexions in its High Street centres was "inadequate", with advisers not taking young people's visits sufficiently seriously.
The quality of face-to-face advice offered to adults by Nextstep varied enormously, but was sometimes rated "poor".
And mystery shoppers said there were problems in having suitable staff either to answer questions or with the experience to meet clients' needs.
Learndirect offered careers advice over the phone that was useful, with advisers who could relate to callers' personal situations.
But services offered by e-mail were also found to be poor, with clients having to wait up to 12 days for a response, the research said.
Barry Sheerman, co-chairman of the Skills Commission and chair of the Commons education committee, said good careers advice was needed because not everyone had relatives and friends who could advise them.
He added that it was particularly disappointing that those seeking face-to-face advice did not seem to be very well served.
"It's a patchy record and I am not sure whether we know yet how to roll out the best practice."
He also acknowledged that talents could be wasted by young people being given the wrong careers advice.
Chief executive of Edge Andy Powell said the research showed some "worrying findings" that needed to be addressed urgently.
"This mystery shopping exercise has really proved invaluable. It has backed up evidence given to the Skills Commission that careers advice is patchy in places and needs to be given a much higher priority by the government."
The Department for Children, Schools and Families agreed the quality of information, advice and guidance still too often fell short of what young people needed.
"However, we believe the trend is upward," a spokeswoman said.
She said a recent report found that overall young people were positive about the quality of information, advice and guidance they received.
"The way ahead is to give local authorities responsibility for the quality of information, advice and guidance.
"Their task is to get the right provision for all their young people, using their funding in the best way to achieve this," she added.
This is due to happen from the beginning of April.
Skills Minister David Lammy said the government was committed to substantial reform and development of the adult careers service.
"We will merge the Nextstep and Learndirect advice services into a single, coherent service making the best use of new technologies to deliver flexible and accessible services.
"We will also work with partners to join up a range of advisory services including childcare, housing, employment and so that individuals can quickly access the support and advice they need," he added.
General secretary of the National Union of Teachers Steve Sinnott said the results were not surprising.
He said careers advice services had become fragmented since much of it was offered outside schools.
He said: "The head of careers always had a really important role. They knew the children they were advising over five or seven years and their parents as well."