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Talk-ED: Is a "career" onward and upward or merely downhill?

Stuart Middleton
14 March 2011

It seems clear to me that careers education and advice needs to start well within the primary school and reach a point of clear direction at the transition into secondary school. But there is little agreement about this and the issues of careers education is one shared by many countries.

In the United States reports about the provision of careers advice and guidance are generally scathing about the quality and usefulness of advice given to high school students. One such report is Betraying the College Dream: How Disconnected K-12 and Post-secondary Education Systems Undermine Student Aspirations (Venezia, Kirst and Antonio, Stanford University’s Bridge Project.

Venezia, Kirst and Anotonio found that students have misunderstandings about the financial aspects of further study, little idea of the actual steps to take to align high school work with entry standards and curriculum content, misguided beliefs about subject choice and the degree of choice students will actually have should they proceed to college. They also identified other areas of more general concern: there were clear inequalities in the education system that seriously affected progress, student knowledge of requirements was sporadic and vague, teachers who are faced with providing the careers advice are not resourced to provide accurate information, and the availability and provision of data to support their work was simply non-existent.

In Australia they have a very broad Australian Blueprint for Career Development which is very much based on the identification of skills, attitudes and knowledge that individuals need if they are to make sound choices of career and later manage it effectively. It is broad and general.

In New Zealand there is the MOE Career Education and Guidance in New Zealand Schools handbook published in 2009. This is a general curriculum (?) for careers education and in the New Zealand tradition establishes broad and general goals which are open to interpretation in the local school.

I question some of the premises on which thinking about careers education is based in all of these countries. First, they all rely heavily on the untested assumption that young learners can internalise the concept of a career especially if the young person is exposed to it only in the context of a special and separate programme and they ignore the tremendously inequal roles that students homes play in all of this.

Is “career” a concept that is a priori or a posteriori? In other words, is a career something that one has at that early point simply through committing oneself to a line of work at the end of schooling or is it a reflection of a body of work over a significant part of a lifetime? For instance when did I become conscious of the fact that I might have a career in education and teaching? I am not sure that I am even aware of it now. Career is a word others use of me but which I do not use in describing my work.

Is not the issue for a young person which job they will do when they leave school or further education and training? Do they really at a young age embark on a “career” or do they head off into a job?

The other point at issue is the fact that home and socio-economic status has a huge impact on young people in this area and yet resources are spread without regard to the severe need of some students compared to the relatively little need of others.

Students who are born into homes of professional people get their careers education with their mother’s milk. Their upbringing is immersed in the value of education generally and the specific demands, positive attributes of particular professions or trades. That is why where parents are lawyers, young ones follow in their footsteps, the same with medicine, perhaps less so with teaching. Farmers’ children tend to stay on the farm a little less nowadays it is reported. 

But whatever the pathway, these students also know with some precision about the value of both the education that leads to entry into these areas and the rewards that come with them. Indeed they consume their share of the rewards. Indeed they consume their fair share of the rewards. My point is that such young people either have little need of formal careers education because they already have a future mapped out or alternately have a good basis for thinking about the future world of work for them, comparisons they can make, help they can access.

But for students who come from homes where this is not the case – parents who have little educational experience and are perhaps at the mercy of the impetuous nature of the labour market – need significant help from the schools And I say schools for a reason. Education systems which are successful in stitching together schooling systems with positive outcomes in terms of employment seem to have two clear decision points.

One is at about the age of 12/13 years and another around the age of 14/15 years. The first is to do with have the employment awareness at a level that sees a connection between education and the world of work and the second is about actually setting off on a pathway that is clearly designed to take them to a positive employment outcome of one kind or another. These systems are also flexible in such a way that these decision point are in an inclusive rather than an exclusive framework – that means there remains some opportunity to change direction.

I suspect that the discussion on careers education has yet to start.



Published inEducation


  1. Lila Pulsford Lila Pulsford

    Just the other day, my four year old asked me what a mayor does. Once I explained, he conceded that the role sounded interesting, but decided to stick with his original choice: rock musician.

    Of course careers education should begin at primary school – pre-school even – and by that I mean simple, fun activities like reading picture books that discuss career options – I suggest Born to Read by Judy Sierra. Children are certainly capable of starting a discussion about careers at a very young age.

    All of the criticism pointed at careers education and careers advisors exists because, as with teachers, there simply isn’t enough time to give each student the individualised attention they deserve. An average secondary school in Auckland has close to 2000 students that need to be seen by 1 careers advisor (who often has a teaching load as well). At tertiary, the ratio is much worse.

    And then, many would argue that it is not only the students who need to have a career discussion, but also their parents. In her book, The Career Maze, Dr. Helen Carpenter talks about the importance of “encouraging the growth of the possible self.” Parents need to be aware of their children’s inherent skills and then help their children name their skills so that they can come to BELIEVE in the value of their skills. How are parents meant to do that when they themselves were never made aware of their own skills and talents?

    As a careers counsellor, I encounter so many people who are unaware of the skills they have to offer, and who therefore lack motivation to study or to find work. Career success is inextricably linked to self-belief and self-esteem. Some experts view the CV as a tool to explore a client’s beliefs about work and success, and a way to uncover self-imposed barriers.

    While I agree that resources and support must be aligned with levels of need, I would still argue that even those secondary students who do have all of the advantages of education, money and connections, still suffer from career angst and still need support. In her blog, Penelope Trunk (a.k.a. the brazen careerist) criticises the oft-given advice to “do what you love” which, simply put, is a profoundly unhelpful thing to say. She writes, “career decisions are not decisions about ‘what do I love most?’ Career decisions are about what kind of life do I want to set up for myself?”

    A successful entry into the world of career exploration is a nebulous cocktail made up of parental influence, socio-economic status, quality of education, and the most elusive element of all, motivation. Best of luck to the poor souls trying to word that into the NZ curriculum.

    Lila Pulsford
    Careers Co-ordinator
    Manukau Institute of Technology

  2. Stuart Stuart

    Great comment Lila and you hit many nails square centre on the head – early start, especially. And you rightly remind me of the need to be cautious about the helpfulness of all the advice given to the seemingly advantaged.


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