'Thinking about my future is really scary' – school leavers are not getting the careers support they need

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Australia’s class of 2022 is on the home stretch. Next month, more than 200,000 year 12 students will be sitting their final exams. In amongst this, they are making big decisions about their lives beyond school.

But research shows they are not getting the support they need as they finish school and move into the work or study that is right for them. Girls, in particular, are not getting the support they need.

This suggests careers support in high school is not working.

Careers advice at school

Careers education is not compulsory in Australian schools. There are guidelines such as the blueprint for career development. And the national curriculum up to year 10 calls on schools to “develop school-based approaches to career education […] to suit the needs of their students and the community”.

States and territories offer their own frameworks for years 11 and 12, such as Victoria’s careers curriculum framework.

These can be interpreted in a wide variety of ways. In reality, some schools may have dedicated careers teachers. Students sometimes seek private careers counselling. Others may have nothing.

Read more: 'It's kind of suffocating': queer young Australians speak about how they feel at school and what they think of politicians

Our study

Our Monash University study published last month surveyed more than 1,300 female school students in years 10 to 12. We wanted to know about how they were choosing their careers.

While we found more than 83% wanted to go to university, there was a significant degree of uncertainty about what next:

  • one third did not know what career best suited them

  • nearly 40% were concerned they were never have a “real” career

  • about one third felt “unemployable”

  • 34% said they were doing subjects or activities with no sense of purpose

  • 26% said they often felt down or worried about selecting a career

The also continued to nominate careers within narrow fields. Half of young women’s chosen careers were concentrated in areas such as medicine (16.7%), law and paralegal studies (12.1%), nursing (11.5%), the creative arts (9.9%) and teaching (8.2%).

These ambitions are not bad, of course. But it means these young people might be overlooking new and growing careers around digital technology or fulfilling and potentially lucrative vocational options, such as trades.

Smith Family study

Another 2022 study released this week by The Smith Family surveyed over 1,500 young people and interviewed 38 students aged 17–19 experiencing disadvantage.

While most young people surveyed (86%) recalled receiving careers support while at school, only just over half found this support helpful. One in ten said it was not useful at all.

In some cases, there was no career advice. As interviewee Rabia said:

Because our school never really provided career counselling, right now a lot of my friends from school, they’re currently dropping out of their degree […] a lot of them are just not happy with what they chose.

Interviewee Mercedes said students needed advice that was individual and supportive:

More discussions around what’s on offer and job pathways would be a great thing […] instead of teachers saying ‘you know you probably can’t do that’ [they should say] ‘let’s think of some steps in order for you to get there’.

When choosing careers, interviewees said they valued hands-on work exposure, vocational study and being able to try different career options while at school. As Sahil said:

That work experience really opened my eyes to how IT would be in actual work settings. That shaped up my thinking of doing software engineering.

Careers advice needs to change

Careers advice needs to do much more than tell young people about what subjects to do in year 12 to qualify for certain degrees, or hand out pamphlets at university open days.

Apart from understanding the modern job market and current range of opportunities, careers advice needs to support young people as they move to the next stage of life.

Read more: Choosing a career? These jobs won't go out of style

Careers support is, of course, closely related to mental health and wellbeing. More than a third of those in The Smith Family Study had a health or mental health condition which was sometimes a barrier to employment, as Tarni said:

Honestly, thinking about my future is really scary. I never really did it ‘cos when you’re really mentally ill at a really young age, you don’t really make plans for it.

Young people need to know they are valued and have potential, particularly in the wake of COVID disruptions last year. We need to find ways to keep them in school and provide them with better career support for their own and Australia’s future prosperity.

Correction: an earlier version of this article included incorrect figures for the number of year 12 students.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Lucas Walsh, Monash University.

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Lucas Walsh currently receives funding from The Paul Ramsay Foundation. He has worked with The Smith Family and sits on a voluntary advisory board unrelated to this study. This article is part of The Conversation’s Breaking the Cycle series, which is supported by a philanthropic grant from the Paul Ramsay Foundation.