We recently published this piece on our Australian site, but because the issue dealt with — career aspirations of young people often not matching labour market realities — is exactly the same in Britain as in Australia, we have republished the piece in full below.
A recent piece of research published in the Journal of the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia, has shed some light on the careers aspirations of young people, as well as raising some important questions about the future of careers advice. Drawing from a study of 6,492 Year 3-12 students in New South Wales, the research paper – Unpacking the career aspirations of Australian school students: towards an evidence base for university equity initiatives in schools – sought to provide answers to the following questions:
1. When, during schooling, do careers aspirations take shape?
2. What is the influence of socio-economic status (SES) on students’ career and higher education interests?
3. What are the specific occupational interests of school students and the demographic and school-related predictors of interest in different occupational categories?
With regard to the first point, the findings of the research challenged the widely held assumption that career aspirations begin to take shape around the middle high school years. Firstly, it was found that there are significant career aspirations forming at a much younger age, often at Year 7, and sometimes even as young as Year 5. Secondly, it was found that in some occupational categories, interest appears to rise or fall towards the end of high school (i.e. not so much in the middle years). For instance:
“Students are less likely to aspire to be a vet or artist as they mature, but more likely to aspire to architecture, engineering, medicine, social work or law.”
These findings led the authors to conclude that for careers outreach to be more effective, it should begin at a much earlier age.
The second area of focus also challenged another widely held assumption, which is that careers aspirations vary greatly according to SES. Instead, what the research found was that “students from low SES backgrounds have similar career aspirations to those from higher SES categories.” This led the authors to the conclusion that the emphasis that is often placed on trying to raise the aspirations of students from lower SES backgrounds may be rather fruitless, since they already appear to have these aspirations, and that the focus should instead be on:
“The provision of more detailed and meaningful information that provides students with tailored advice about what is needed for specific careers…”
In other words, the conclusions from the first two focus points were essentially that:
a) Careers outreach should start much earlier than is currently the case, and
b) There is a need for more detailed and meaningful information
These emphases carry over into the third point of the focus of the report, which looked at the specific occupational interests of school students. Whilst the report picked up on how specific occupational interests differ according to factors like demographics and gender, we want to highlight another element brought to light by the data; one which wasn’t highlighted in the conclusion of the report, but which nonetheless is a vital part of successful careers outreach. That issue is aspirations versus reality.
Looking at the aspirational occupations chosen by the young people, what is fairly obvious is that there is a tendency to pick occupations that are perhaps well known, or which are constantly in the media, or which are — frankly speaking — considered to be cool careers.
Just to take one example, according to the study, the most named occupation of all was arts professional (picked by a total of 1,306 (20.12%) of respondents). But the question arises, how much demand is there for arts professionals?
Delving into our data, we can find an answer to this question. Looking at New South Wales (the State where the study was carried out), there were a total of 3,765,306 jobs in 2016. However, the number of arts and media professionals totalled just 41,356, making up just 1.09% of all jobs in the State. And in terms of growth over the next few years, whilst our data projects a total of 270,564 new jobs in New South Wales between 2016 and 2020, the number of new jobs for arts and media professionals is projected to be around 3,988, or just 1.47% of the total job increase in the State.
In other words, whilst arts and media professional might seem to be a good career to aspire to in terms of “it’s something I’d like to do”, the fact that there are so few jobs out there in this career means that it is — for the most part — highly unrealistic. At least part of the purpose of careers information should therefore be to inform young people of these sorts of realities. By introducing local occupations data into the discussion, it is possible to help them see that there may be other alternatives they should consider as a Plan B or C, where demand may be higher than their first choice.
In summary, the findings of this research are fascinating, and they go a long way to challenging a couple of long-held assumptions around careers advice and outreach. We wholeheartedly agree with the conclusions of the research that careers information should start earlier to be more effective, and it that it needs to “nurture” aspirations through better information.
However, we would also add to this the observation that the career choices shown in the research demonstrate that there is a big gap between careers aspirations and labour market reality. One of the aims of careers information should therefore be all about closing this gap, with data-driven careers insight being offered to young people, helping them to make more informed decisions, and to better align their aspirations with the realities of the world of work.
Ifyou would like to read more about the gap between career aspirations and realities, and how LMI can help close it, check out the Great Expectations report we did with City and Guilds back in 2015, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org