Are young people realistic about the job pathways that are most likely to be available to them? Absolutely Education spoke to school careers specialists

A news report at the beginning of last year suggested that young people aspire to careers that are the least attainable. The story, reported by the BBC, focused on research by the charity Education and Employers – ‘Disconnected: Career Aspiration and Jobs in the UK’. This had found that young people aged 17 and 18 tend to aspire to careers in the most high-profile and ‘glamorous’ fields – sport, culture, art, entertainment.

These are, of course, the very fields that offer the fewest pathways. In fact, the charity findings were pretty stark on the disconnect between aspiration and realisation. It surveyed 7,000 young people for its findings and, using Office for National Statistics data, worked out that five times as many young people wanted to work in these high-profile jobs as there are career opportunities.

It is quite normal for young people to aim high, but it does beg the question: are they being prepared for the challenges that lie ahead? The disconnect looks even starker right now, after a year when there has been a desperate blow to all arts and cultural sectors and most sports-related opportunities, not to mention the host of other fields in which young people traditionally gain employment or work experience.

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Young people are not short of aspirations – even in a difficult job market

On the other hand, we do have to consider how much we should (or have the right to) clip young people’s wings. Think about those tragi-comic tales, invariably told by extremely famous / successful people, about the hope-crushing careers advice they received in their school days. These ‘proved you wrong’ stories are funny told years down the line, but no one wants to be that teacher or advisor who crushes the next Elon Musk or Beyoncé. So, for advisors and parents there is always a difficult path to tread in providing realistic and timely information, while still encouraging young people to follow their dreams. Thankfully, careers specialists we spoke to do tread that fine line with extreme care and focus instead on providing solid information, practical guidance and inspiration to help young people see their own potential and the options ahead.

Highgate School, which won Best Careers Programme in 2020/21 at the RateMyApprenticeship Award, also hosts an annual Careers Fair where it opens its doors to hundreds of pupils from across the capital. This means the Highgate careers team gain valuable insights into young Londoners’ perspectives both within and beyond their school gates. Careers Specialist Amandeep Jaspal who – working alongside Deputy Head (Pupils’ Personal Development and Employability) Louise Shelley – offers careers and employability guidance at Highgate believes young people still want to aim high but they do fear getting it wrong. “The young people I’ve worked with – both at Highgate and our partner schools – are not short of aspiration, but I think they can feel overwhelmed by the range of opportunities available to them and the feeling that there is a need to make choices and decisions that they’ll be ‘stuck’ with for life,” she says.

For pupils at Highgate, the careers advice is offered on a one-to-one basis with additional support offered in a pastoral setting by tutors and their Head of House. Amandeep Jaspal says that the messaging is consistent: follow your interests, develop core skills and explore other areas through co-curricular activities. She says one commonality among the young people she works with is a tendency to overlook the assets they already have, however limited their current work experience. “Supporting them with this important process of self-reflection and helping them to appreciate the skills that they do have is key. Young people often underestimate how much they have to offer employers and they need guidance to showcase these skills and to see how transferable they are.”

At Hurst College, West Sussex, there is a similarly focused and supportive approach to helping young people discover strengths and find their right path. There is a dedicated Careers and Higher Education Department, led by Jan Leeper, Head of Careers and Senior Mistress. She works closely with Employment Specialist Tania Fielden and the careers team also includes advisors and dedicated UCAS specialists to help with higher-education applications.

One key approach at the school is to start talking about career options early, so that students are considering goals before they start choosing or cutting off study pathways. While this factual advice is essential, there is always encouragement to aim high – even if it some less secure field – and the team find students are invariably well-informed and open to guidance. “We find our students are pretty realistic, whatever their goals,” says Tania Fielden.    

“There is always a difficult path to tread in providing realistic and timely information, while still encouraging young people to follow their dreams”

Practical assistance comes with a whole raft of one-to-one guidance, biometric and aptitude tests and then help with researching potential careers. As with Highgate careers-focused activities held at the school assist with this process. They range from networking events to specialist industry speakers. The team support work placements too, guiding CV creation and holding mock interviews before students are put forward for roles. This, they say, is good experience even if their young people don’t always land that dream work placement the first time.

One thing the careers team see in Hurst students is a pragmatic approach, whatever national research may suggest about an ‘aspiration gap’. Jan Leeper says it is especially evident now, when so many plans and dreams have been put on hold (be it gap year adventure, work placement or university start date) but it was already a sentiment expressed by students. “The job market is especially challenging now, but it was already a challenging market pre-Covid,” she adds.

Both she and Tania Fielden have noticed more young people thinking in new and creative ways about career goals – which has to be a good thing. “We always remind them it’s a two-way thing,” says Jan Leeper. Recently they have noticed more Hurst students thinking about careers as entrepreneurs – some have already dipped a toe in the water – and many are factoring into their choices elements such as flexibility, work-life balance and company social values.

We know young people face a very different set of challenges to leavers of even a decade ago. Once rock-solid careers and secure industries don’t look so watertight now, and they are constantly being reminded they may have several careers ahead, but there are reasons to be positive. Highgate School’s Amandeep Jaspal says she has been impressed by young people’s attitudes during recent times. “It has been refreshing for me to see their optimism. Pupils are managing their own expectations of the experiences available to them and they are becoming more flexible and open with their choices.”

Further reading: How Heathfield School teaches entrepreneurship