Careers counsellors are playing a crucial role in helping students navigate a future transformed by the pandemic, writes MYKE BARTLETT.
For students, making decisions about a career path is always fraught. But having to think about work in the middle of a pandemic, as borders slam shut, businesses close and jobs disappear, is a particularly tough ask for teens. Add to that the Morrison government making university fees prohibitively expensive – guaranteeing that aspiring tertiary students will face years of crippling debt – and the future can look pretty bleak. In that environment, it isn’t hard to see why the role of careers counsellor has become more important than ever.
Karen ‘Booma’ Burgess, careers counsellor at Northcote High School, says the past year has been particularly trying for her students, as doors closed on options like gap-year employment or overseas travel. “There’s always an element of uncertainty for a large proportion of young people, but I think that made them feel a lot less in control.”
‘The discussions now are really about the skills they might take to the workforce, rather than the jobs they might do.’
This was particularly an issue with apprenticeships, as industries scaled back on operations. Booma worked with students to encourage a more flexible outlook.
“We always try to have a ‘plan B’, but this year we tried to make sure they had a ‘plan C’ as well. Students usually try to get a job if they don’t get an apprenticeship, but this year some needed to look into another TAFE course – a certificate III, or something that would give them an edge when people are employing again.”
This kind of flexibility illustrates a shift in how careers education is approached in schools. Gone are the days when high school students completed a short survey that saw them pushed towards a particular job. The focus these days is on the process – helping kids start to think about work in a more general, if practical, sense.
“The discussions now are really about the skills they might take to the workforce, rather than the jobs they might do,” says Booma. “Everything’s changing so quickly.”
‘Career development is a process, it’s not a destination. We can teach the process and do it quite effectively, but you need the space to do it and you need qualified practitioners.’
This thinking forms a key part of the recommendations given by the Australian Centre for Career Education (ACCE) to the recent state parliamentary inquiry into career advice activities in Victorian schools. In its submission, the ACCE (formerly the Career Education Association of Victoria) argued that career education should be mandated for all students between Year 3 and Year 12.
ACCE CEO Bernadette Gigliotti stresses this doesn’t mean Year 3 students should be expected to have a clear idea about any future career, but rather be helped to think broadly about what work might look like.
“Speaking to students at a young age is also a good way to debunk stereotypes and talk about why we don’t have enough women going into a particular career.”
The ACCE also wants to see career education introduced as a methodology in teaching and education degrees, ensuring that careers counsellors are all qualified to the same standard and recognised as a distinct teaching position. At present, the role is often assigned as an afterthought, which makes it difficult to build a consistent approach across schools and year levels.
“Career development is a process, it’s not a destination. We can teach the process and do it quite effectively, but you need the space to do it and you need qualified practitioners,” says Bernadette.
‘I don’t really like to advise kids on specific jobs; I like to talk to them about all the different choices they have.’
These needs were echoed in the AEU’s submission to the review, which cited evidence that the time available for careers teachers to carry out their role is declining. Only a minority of careers education teachers are able to devote all their time to the role, while there is presently no requirement for careers advisors in government schools to have a specific qualification in careers education.
The effect of the recently announced changes to VCAL and VCE – in which VCAL will be phased out in favour of a more integrated approach to careers education – remains to be seen, with details still pending.
Back at Northcote, Booma says the shift towards getting kids thinking about careers earlier has helped mitigate much of the current uncertainty. “We will still have Year 12 students unsure about what they want to do, but there’s a lot of things they are certain about, like what they’re good at and what they enjoy.
“I don’t really like to advise kids on specific jobs; I like to talk to them about all the different choices they have. Let’s have a conversation about how you can take those things you enjoy and turn them into something you might want to get out of bed for every day – until you find the next thing.”