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High Stakes Choices for the Young

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the first 10 years of work are critical for the individual, and the country
The last few months of any year are often fraught for families whose young people are in transition – to work, training, tertiary education, or moving from those milestones to work. We know the choices they make at this stage are hugely important for a number of reasons:
• A good post school decision which suits the interests, talents and vocational orientation of the young person affects their success in workplaces, training or tertiary education, maintains learning enthusiasm and motivation, and maximises the likelihood of achievement and satisfaction. A powerful upward cycle for the young person who feels they are on their way to productivity, economic independence and a career.
• Conversely the poor decision, the miserable workplace experience, the wrong course, the misspent fees and ongoing uncertainty can spiral into an equally powerful sense of failure, loss of confidence and for some a depressive phase.
• A good choice of workplace which matches the interests, skills of the new worker is most likely to be the one where they will develop their skills, get encouragement, grow their workplace knowledge, and leverage their learning into better opportunities
• Conversely the job taken because ‘a job is a job’, (and it is true, sometimes there is no option) but where the environment is not a good fit for the person, and they fail to perform, is more likely to inhibit confidence in the young person who wants a way to develop skills and competence in the working world.
The problem with failure and poor work and personal confidence at this early age is that many then become afraid to try new options; they then fail to participate fully or find opportunities to thrive in the labour market, and gain the long term benefits of participation.
Add to this mix a significant finding from the 2015 edition of the OECD Employment Outlook, which is that long-term career prospects are largely determined in the first ten years of working life. Getting on the right track, gaining skills and economic momentum early makes a significant difference to future lives. For many young people in the OECD the situation is dire –and the OECD report tells us why: ‘across the globe there are than 40 million 15-29 year-olds (or 1 in 6 youth) across OECD countries are neither employed nor in education or training, the so-called NEETs. More than half of all NEETs –27 million young people – have dropped off the radar completely. They have literally disappeared from their country’s education, social, and labour market systems. Whatever their age, the long-term jobless can become demoralised and are sometimes stigmatised by potential employers, so there is a real risk that some members of this group will become permanently disengaged from the labour market.
In New Zealand 11.9% of 15-24 year olds are in this category, young people who are often economically and socially disadvantaged and most at risk of a lifetime of precarious low paid jobs. Interesting the NEET rate for those aged 20–24 years is higher (15%) than for those aged 15–19 years in all regions (Statistics NZ). This is a group in my experience who are desperate for help, old enough to really understand the need for the right direction, but often rapidly losing confidence as they fail to find a place to start. Ideally they would get assistance quite specifically for finding their direction –this is hugely motivating. Government programmes addressing the needs of these groups come and go, but usually with a focus only on the younger group, and not with any real interest in using trained careers practitioners in their aid packages. Those young people who are in the education and training systems, however highly they achieve, still have a choices ‘minefield’ to be negotiated with very high stakes in term of individual debt and future progress. The stakes are high for all of us, as there are bigger implications to consider.
English research into the economic benefits of career guidance (a definition that encompasses a wide range of careers activities, and goes much wider than the education system) shows us the picture beyond the benefits of individual aspirations. This research points to macro outcomes in economic growth, standards and productivity, and deficit reduction. An employable workforce, who have made good choices to train and gain skills in areas that motivate them to develop further, is a more sustainable and resilient workforce which will contribute over the long term to improved health outcomes, decreased crime and tax benefit costs, and increased tax revenue. Ideally they will be able to access and benefit from good strategic career management advice for the important choices made in every decade of their lives to ensure a sustainable career.
Who can provide this? The OECD in 2004 argued for more stimulation of non-government careers provision, however in NZ a small, growing and determined careers industry has had to develop and grow very independently, often directly competing for survival with government services, whose provisions have had a changeable focus in recent years. While helpful resources are available from our government site, it is not a specialist provider of career decision-making. Many schools have made significant progress in implementing good careers education processes, however time resourcing is often marginal for the numbers who would benefit from assistance, and specialist help in the area of decision-making is variable depending on the training and experience of careers staff, and their ability to access this.
Young people often get well meaning, but not specialist advice from those around them. This can compound the problem, especially when it comes from the Hon. Stephen Joyce. His enthusiasm for STEM careers is understandable – we must train more in these areas, however best we identify these students well first. Encouragement without analysis can rebound. There are many examples of the young person who excels in science and maths at high school, influenced into engineering courses-but it’s not the right choice. That young person is left to carry the burden of change – two years into the course when they hate it and realise it’s not for them, but hugely conflicted after the time and money invested already. Time is a critical factor at this age and stage – the sooner they get into a work environment where they are motivated and earning, the sooner they meet the developmental milestones of the 20’s, a significant one of which is financial independence. Those left behind at this time suffer. It is of continual amazement to me how much well-meaning but uninformed advice is given out in the careers domain when the financial and personal stakes are so high. If in doubt, try a specialist – even getting into the right ball park, so that future movement can be adjusted and managed without catastrophic change, is a huge advantage. Changes are inevitable, they can be relatively seamless and aligned to or built on well-chosen early choices, but cause anguish, disruption and financial pain if they are not.
Many young people need assistance after a more generalist degree where they have gained excellent skills but not a specific direction – that’s when the step into the best fit workplace is critical. Starting in the right workplace, one that produces satisfaction and high work commitment gives significant advantages to those who find this – opportunities for training, development and progression. Another group that looks for help are those in their late 20’s – they’ve done a few years in the career of early choice – and it’s not quite right, they know it’s not where they want to make their career, or excel. Again, quick specialist advice and assistance to solve the problem and transition efficiently (and again time and money are the resources most at risk) is invaluable at this time. They can get back on track with motivation regained.
Young people across the economic spectrum are affected by early access to good career decision-making. Good decisions – the ones that lead to the best available work choice, training and learning that suits, and develop that essential motivation, achievement, satisfaction, competence and confidence – have a direct link to the progress achieved in those first ten career years, and then in later career. Simply put, from a careers perspective good decisions lead to better chances over time – to build essential career skills, enter the market and achieve personal and economic independence. This is the time to look for specialist help for the motivational and economic momentum it can provide. The careers industry has trained and equipped itself for these challenges; they are available to help.