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Career studies and advice: start early or don’t start at all

Most career advice starts late in high school. This is too late for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. from

The unemployment rate for 15 to 19-year-olds is currently 20.1% in Australia. This is over three times the national rate of 6.3% and almost double the unemployment rate of this age group during the first year of the Global Financial Crisis, 10.7%.

This means that one in five young people is actively looking for a job. The longer they are unemployed, the harder it is to join the workforce.

Those who can turn to their mums and dads for financial support, do. However, statistics show that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have the most difficulty in gaining meaningful work and contributing to our economy after leaving school.

Young people who experience difficulties making the transition to further education, training or work also tend to be less academically inclined. This makes it difficult for them to compete in contemporary job markets, as the demand for low-skilled labour is much lower than it was in the past.

Governments have been considering how to get students to think about what they want to do for a living and why. Students who think critically about their career choices well before they leave school are thought to benefit from improved further education and employment outcomes and make better choices than those who don’t.

Why some students are career uncertain

This is confirmed by a survey of over 700 high school students in NSW. Importantly, it found that students who were uncertain as to what they’d like to do in their future career share some important characteristics.

Prior academic achievement was a factor. For example, students attending academically selective schools were more certain about their future career path than students in non-selective schools, as were students who rated their academic ability in the top third of their grade. Students who ranked themselves as being in the bottom third of their grade were more likely to be uncertain about their career.

Location and job availability also appeared to have an effect. Higher proportions of students located in urban schools were certain of their future career, whereas students from outer-metropolitan and rural schools were much less certain.

Somewhat unexpectedly, those uncertain about their careers across all year groupings (from Years 9 to 12) reported never having access to a career education session. This is despite the recommended provision of career education to high school students in Years 9-10 by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA).

These uncertain students also reported that they did not participate in school-organised work experience programs. These might have helped them determine their career preferences.

They also reported they didn’t enjoy school and there were not enough elective subject choices. In many cases, they made their subject selections on others’ recommendations and not because they were interested in them.

Good seed makes a good crop if looked after

In order to help disadvantaged youth improve their career prospects, Australian government initiatives attempt to force students to stay at school and explore the option of attending university.

However, something more effective is needed if we’re to get these kids interested in their careers and how their school studies relate to real work.

Researchers from the University of Newcastle note that younger students tend to have higher aspirations than older students. They recommend intervention as early as primary school, rather than waiting for students to flounder through high school.

Educating students, parents and teachers about the link between school subjects and possible career pathways can make school more meaningful. The education system should move towards ensuring that students are provided with career education sessions before they make their elective subject choices, enabling them to make informed decisions. At the moment, this rarely happens.

In addition to earlier provision of career advice, the choices of elective subjects should reflect students’ needs and interests. This is problematic because of existing problems in the education system.

While many academically inclined students are satisfied with traditional academic subjects such as English, history, science and physics, schools in disadvantaged communities must appeal to a much broader range of tastes, despite limited resources.

If students can’t identify any interesting subjects and are forced to remain at school, they are set on a dangerous path. School suddenly becomes less enjoyable, they underperform in subjects from which they derive no enjoyment and, as a result, they are likely to have low self-esteem, poor educational outcomes and poor job prospects.

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