Ask a business leader what they think about careers advice and they will tell you that we need more of it and better.
But if you ask them to identify the crucial moment that proved to be the first steps on their own career path, it will often be something very different from careers guidance as we traditionally conceive it. Typically, it will be an experience that helped them see their own strengths in a new way or opened their eyes to opportunities. It may just have been a moment in which they were challenged in a new environment, succeeded and felt their own confidence grow. Their success was built on the accumulation of these experiences, moments of inspiration.
The reason these moments are so potent is that, for most people, imagining a career is like imagining a colour you have never seen. It is very difficult indeed to know what the word would mean day-to-day. Without any experience or understanding of work, picking from a long list of careers is an almost impossible task. These moments complement the traditional careers guidance that we are familiar with.
Last week, the Careers and Enterprise Company, which I lead, released research into how young people approach career decision-making. The picture will be a familiar one to anyone working in schools. Most young people disengage from the process altogether or latch on to simple answers that are not rooted in the reality of the careers market.
While, yes, the overwhelming majority of young people expect to have careers that will be different from their parents’, when they are pushed to list possible jobs that they could do, many name the jobs that their parents would have been considering in the 1980s.
And when asked about influences, television plays a strong role. In our recent research, One Born Every Minute was named multiple times as inspiring the career choice of midwifery. Historically, CSI has had a similar effect on forensics.
The research finds that there are two underlying reasons for this response, and that neither disengaging nor latching on to simple answers are irrational in light of the complexity of the decision-making process. The first reason is the way that information is presented to young people.
The research identified 49 different websites providing data to help young people make career decisions. The space is rich with innovation but the quantity of different resources is itself adding complexity to the already difficult task of thinking about careers.
Push out information
In careers, we do not have public awareness campaigns to target young people in their journeys through school
Careers information is also offered predominantly in a “pull” format, relying on young people to seek it out. But this is not the case in other areas.
For example, in public health, campaigns are “pushed” out to us around the dangers of smoking cigarettes or the importance of eating fruit and vegetables.
Today, in careers, we do not have equivalent public awareness campaigns to target young people in their journeys through school. This is particularly interesting in careers, as one of the findings from the research is that students’ “moments of choice” can often differ from their “moments of inspiration”.
A young person will start to form ideas about what career is right for them long before they have to make a post-16 choice. There could be an opportunity to better support a young person’s journey both in terms of idea formation and decision-making. The response to this line of thinking is often to ask what information can reasonably be presented to young people about careers when the world of work is changing so fast.
However, the research shows that even relatively basic facts around short-term returns from certain qualifications, the qualification requirements for certain jobs, or when is a good time to start considering core strengths and passions, are not well communicated or understood.
The presentation of information is not the only challenge. A second issue is the support given to young people to be informed decision-makers. Even if decisions are presented to young people in ways that are easier to manage, students still need help developing the skills to navigate the process.
This is not happening consistently, and many young people do not feel a sense of control over decision-making. They have little understanding of what jobs would be like, and therefore struggle to form reasonable hypotheses to test. One young person interviewed was fairly typical when she said she had decided to work in childcare because her family had always told her that that was “what she wanted” because she was “so good with her little sister”. No one told her that she might have other talents and abilities that could take her in a different direction or that she might want to consider other options.
For some young people, this situation meant that they never started the process of engagement with the careers journey – for others, it meant they selected simple and relatively uninformed answers.
Give students control
A sense of control and confidence will help young people to make good choices
A sense of control and confidence will help young people to make good choices. However, research also shows that the act of planning increases satisfaction with the outcome – even if the outcome is not the planned one. Simply put: agency itself creates wellbeing.
In a world of work that is changing fast and where people will switch jobs frequently, it becomes even more important to help young people build the tools to be informed decision-makers and have this agency.
One way to do this is to increase exposure to the world of work. We know that this exposure inspires young people. It creates context and meaning around careers – helps bring them to life and helps young people to understand what they like and what they don’t. It also provides young people with a compass to navigate decisions, and the cues and connections to be informed decision-makers.
It allows young people to make reasonable shortcuts when presented with lots of information and to build rules of thumb about what they like and how this relates to the skills in demand in the workforce. Finally, it builds confidence to take opportunities. Many of the young people I speak to who have had the opportunity to work with employers talk about the confidence they now have to seize opportunities and to consider goals that before were not imaginable.
But today, only in 40 per cent of schools do young people meet an employer even once a year. This is in contrast to other countries, such as Germany and Sweden, where engagement with employers is built into the school structure from an early age. There is a huge amount more to do to move the dial on this in England.
However, research points to ways in which people across industries can play a role in helping young people to build the compass they need to be more in control when faced with the daunting question of what they want to do when they leave school.
Claudia Harris is CEO of the Careers and Enterprise Company, an employer-led organisation that has been set up to inspire and prepare young people for the fast-changing world of work.
Alongside the research, the Careers and Enterprise Company is to publish a proposal on the next steps it plans to take, in particular around framing careers information more clearly. For more information on the Careers and Enterprise company, visit its website at careersandenterprise.co.uk