It’s time to get serious about careers education

It’s time to get serious about careers education

by Doug Taylor

Every year, hundreds of thousands of students finish Year 12. And whether they go on to university, other training, or straight into the workforce, ensuring that they have the best preparation for what happens to them post-school is in everyone’s interests.

Last year’s interim Productivity Commission report, "The Key to Prosperity," showed that from 2010-2020, productivity growth was its worst for 50 years. The right career education can help boost this metric, which Treasurer Jim Chalmers says is a national priority.

“We must make productivity growth an urgent task, a national task, a task for all of us,” Dr. Chalmers said at last September’s Jobs and Skills Summit. “Investing in the productivity of our people and businesses, and maintaining full employment, should be the first things we agree. Because our future prosperity, in large part, depends on them.”

So, as we mark National Careers Week, it is important that we do what we can to make sure young people are as ready for the workforce as possible. But the complex world of work is often difficult to understand, particularly for those experiencing disadvantage.

Not everyone has access to quality and sustained careers education and advice at school or even outside of school. And careers support in schools remains inconsistent and challenging to deliver.

In our experience, the students who most need career information, advice, and guidance are often the least likely to get it. The schools they attend are under-resourced. Their teachers are doing their best but are stretched, and while parents want to help, they sometimes don’t have the right experience or knowledge.

So, how do students make decisions about future careers – especially when many may not have role models or exposure to a wide variety of jobs? How do they prepare for jobs they don’t even know about or keep up to date with new and emerging industries?

Research shows that what students do once they leave school or study is heavily influenced by their exposure to careers in earlier years. Young people who participate in multiple encounters with the world of work (for example, workplace and tertiary institution visits or work experience) while in school are much more likely to be in employment, education, or training in their 20s.

With Australian government funding through the Department of Education, The Smith Family is currently running the Growing Careers Project to help young people develop critical thinking about the labor market, their potential roles within it, and to broaden their aspirational horizons through multiple direct encounters with people in work. It is providing students with access to authentic, trustworthy information that challenges and refines their career interests and expectations.

But there’s still more to be done. And one key piece is getting students to start thinking about careers earlier in their education.

Start early

Ideally, careers education needs to start at primary school, but at least at the beginning of high school, so students don’t spend years finding their niche. I don’t deny that for some young people, the business of trying and discarding jobs is almost a rite of passage. But it’s important for students to have some idea about the options open to them – and preferably before they hit their first key job.

The Smith Family is two years into a three-year research project called Pathways, Engagement, and Transitions (PET). It is already helping us better understand the post-school pathways of young people experiencing disadvantage and how they can be better supported to move into employment.

More than 1,500 young people experiencing disadvantage who were in Year 12 in late 2020 participated in the first PET survey in April 2021. The vast majority (86%) recalled receiving careers support at school. While this was a strong result, just over half said it was useful, 35 percent said it was neither useful nor not useful, and 11 percent said it was not useful. This data highlights that there is plenty of scope to do more to strengthen careers support in schools, which feeds into greater productivity.

Currently, careers education is not mandated in the Australian curriculum, and the decision whether to provide any career education is, for the most part, up to school leaders.

There is so much at stake for our young people as they negotiate today’s fast-moving and highly competitive jobs market, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. As the saying goes: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

So, as the Treasurer said, increasing productivity is a task for all of us. We should be including high-quality careers education in the school curriculum and resourcing it properly. And we need others to step up, particularly businesses in local areas, so that young people have more opportunities to learn and experience the working world from an early age.

A career is more than a job, and better formal careers education is a win for everyone - young people, businesses, and the economy. By working together, we can ensure all students, no matter their backgrounds, can have equal access to get ahead.

Doug Taylor is CEO of The Smith Family, a national independent children’s education charity.