Students need good career guidance, and here’s how schools can give it

By Pauline Musset
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Choosing anything is hard, especially when your decision might have long-term consequences for your life. A new OECD research paper looks at career decisions and career guidance. Based on 2015 PISA data, it shows that most 15-year-olds already have career plans: only around 15% of them have not decided what they want to do. But the data show that today’s teenagers aren’t very imaginative when it comes to their expected working life. Almost one in ten wants to be a medical doctor; one in three cited one of just ten jobs.

The ways in which young people think about jobs and careers, the study shows, are highly shaped by parental influence, social background and sense of identity. The paper highlights new analysis which shows, for example, that disadvantaged students are significantly less likely to want to work as professionals than their more advantaged peers – even after statistical controls are put in place for academic abilities. This means that parents’ wealth and advantages play a major factor in shaping students’ ambitions. And it is not just social background that can limit aspirations: gender and an immigrant background also shape students’ expectations.

Education and training systems are often difficult to navigate. But career guidance can help.

Education and training systems, and the many different options they offer, are often difficult to navigate. But career guidance can help. The paper reviews the empirical evidence available, and finds that guidance can often improve educational, social and economic outcomes. But what makes for effective career guidance? Some of the commonplace challenges facing countries include the risks that career guidance begins too late, is marginalised as a part of school life, is under-resourced and delivered by poorly trained staff who may lack objectivity and/or knowledge of the labour market. Analysis from PISA shows that often it is the students who appear to have the greatest need for career guidance who have the least access to it.

Independent career advisers – in and out of school – can help students in different ways; through questionnaires and tests, they can help students better understand their interests and preferences. But more important, they can also inform students about jobs that are unfamiliar to them, and the paths into them. Apprenticeships, for example, remain mysterious to students. Early and varied exposure to the world of work – through talks about jobs and career fairs open to all students – is especially important for broadening students’ horizons.

On average, however, students are less likely to engage in activities involving employers than in wholly school-based activities: fewer than 30% of PISA respondents, on average, had visited a job fair by the age of 15. This is simply not enough. ICT can provide many new ways of connecting schools with working people. That connection can help ensure that the decisions that teenagers make about their future are well-informed and based on information from reliable sources.

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