Glamour jobs, such as forensic scientists in television dramas, appear to have caught the imagination and help shape ideas about jobs, a study by the Centre for Educational Sociology at Edinburgh University has found.
"Situations vacant" pages in newspapers also help build a picture of the type of opportunities around. But young people still rely on family and friends, despite decades of investment in advice and guidance.
The study followed 36 young people over three years as they prepared to leave school and enter post-school education, training and work. They absorbed impressions and developed their ideas from parents and family members, some of whom had had experience of redundancy or retraining.
Typical of their remarks were: "He says it's a good job"; and "Someone that works beside my mum, she had a degree and couldn't get a job." The researchers comment: "Some of these statements were key drivers of young people's career-related decisions."
Cousins and neighbours had dropped out of college, struggled at university or had spoken enthusiastically about certain jobs.
The researchers, Sheila Semple, Cathy Howieson and Mary Paris, state: "This had more impact than the formal networks such as schools and careers advisers. One reason for this is that the informal network, unlike the formal network, can provide hot information, that is information from those who are seen as having recent real experience. There was little evidence that formal guidance providers tried to incorporate this source."
Part-time work is a powerful influence on young people and almost all had a job while still at school, or shortly after leaving. It helped develop their maturity which in turn could contribute to more realistic career decisions.
"It was rare, however, for part-time work to be considered within career education in schools, nor did it appear to feature in a major way in careers guidance interviews," the researchers state.
Young people valued the informal network. Parents and friends might say:
"That would never suit you." The formal network was regarded as "unhelpful" as it often refused to give an opinion.
Around one in three young people were having problems months or years after leaving school and parents tended to feel they had done their best. "Informal networks of career support are relatively helpless in the face of career uncertainty: it is at this point that professional help is needed, but there was little evidence that parents and families were aware of its availability post-school," the study states.
In a more comforting observation, the researchers say that no informal network can give a complete picture of opportunities when the labour market is changing so rapidly. But careers services should do more to link the informal with the formal.
"Young People's Transitions: Careers Support from Family and Friends", by Sheila Semple, Cathy Howieson and Mary Paris. Published by the Centre for Educational Sociology at Edinburgh University.