Viw Magazine

  • Written by Susanne Gannon, Associate Professor, Western Sydney University
Locking yourself into one career path too early may be risky. from

We are being asked to do work experience this year, in a field we might like to work in. We are being asked to think about choosing electives that are directing us towards our career choices.

I have no idea what I want to do! I haven’t yet found anything I am particularly good at. I feel like I am being left behind. That others are making choices about their lives that I am not prepared for yet. Is this normal?

Lachlan, year 10

Key points

  • Many young people feel this way – it is normal!
  • locking yourself into one career path too early can be risky
  • it’s important to be flexible and learn transferable skills
  • ask lots of questions from people around you.

Hi Lachlan, many young people feel undecided about their career pathway. One study found around one in five teenagers were uncertain about a clear career goal.

The questions you ask are about more than just which subjects to choose in the last years of school. They point towards the bigger decision about what sort of person you want to become. And that is a big decision to make all at once.

Careers advisors, teachers and parents often talk about career choice as a matter of logical decision-making and planning, but it also involves feelings, imagination and knowledge about yourself and the world.

These are constantly evolving so it isn’t surprising you feel confused.

It’s important to be flexible

You say some of your friends already have clear ideas about their futures. But being too rigid can be just as risky as not having a decision. If you set your career sights too narrow, or too early, on just one type of career you might not have a back-up plan.

What happens if it doesn’t work out? Does that mean you will feel like a failure before you even start? You might miss out on possibilities that don’t fit that narrow vision but that might suit you perfectly.

Watch Tim Minchin explain to students at his old university why “You don’t have to have a dream.”

Some research suggests today’s graduates will average five separate careers and around 17 different employers in their working life. This means an important skill these days is the ability to adapt.

The careers you have in the future might be quite different from each other, drawing on new skills and interests developed over time. Changes might happen because a workplace closes, or a new career becomes possible, or you want to move or develop a new interest.

Read more: Choosing a career? These jobs won't go out of style

So while having a good idea about you want to do will give you a goal to work towards, it is important to be flexible too. Think of plans as provisional. Be ready to adjust your thinking and recalibrate them as you get more experience.

  • Develop short-term, medium and long-term goals. You’ll find great resources to help with this at Headspace.

Learning your interests takes time

You say you don’t know what you’re good at yet. That’s OK too. Learning to recognise your skills, interests and values takes time. Talking to other people can help including friends, family, people you know through sport or other communities you are part of.

School subjects don’t test some of the important skills for a successful working life, such as the ability to get along with different people or flexible thinking, so you may not know you have them yet.

It is helpful to think about clusters of jobs that draw on similar sets of skills. Particular skills (such as attention to detail) or interests (such as working outdoors or caring for others) can translate from one area into another.

Read more: Lack of workers with 'soft skills' demands a shift in teaching

Work experience in customer service or retail sales will develop your skills in communicating with other people, being organised and understanding record-keeping. These are building blocks for success in many other careers.

Learning skills in one context that you can carry to a different one means you are adaptable – one of most important qualities for success. The more you can learn on the job, no matter which job it is, the better off you will be.

Watch Eddie Woo explaining why “the advice to follow your passion is a terrible idea…”

There are many pathways

Many young people may choose to pursue a career they already know. Perhaps a friend or family member already does this sort of work. That’s a great start but it can also be limiting.

Many careers have changed in recent years. Some are disappearing while new careers are always on the horizon, so going with something a parent does may not be suitable anymore. Some of the fastest growing career areas include the personal care (such as aged care), health and technology sectors.

Take every opportunity your school offers to explore the world of work. There might be industry tasters, VET immersion days, career expos or fairs, presentations, mentoring programs, workplace and university visits, or school-university partnership programs.

When it comes to subject selection, you might decide to combine vocational training with mainstream academic subjects that will help you work towards a university course.

Read more: Don't stress, your ATAR isn't the final call. There are many ways to get into university

There are also pathway courses and alternative entry programs into univesities if you don’t quite get into what you want. There is no decision now that will lock you in to only one possibility for your future. Do stay at school though as that will set you up well for whatever comes in the future. Keep your options open.

  • My Future has fantastic resources including quizzes that will help learn more about what might suit you. You can also match up school subjects with career pathways.

Work experience is a good way to develop skills

The work experience you do at school need not match exactly what you will end up doing in the future, but it gives a great taste of full-time work.

Most young people find it is the most useful career related activity they do at school because it is hands on and puts them in direct contact with employers.

Read more: Unpaid work experience is widespread but some are missing out: new study

Try for something that draws on some of your current interests and skills, but remember this is an opportunity to try things out. A good report from an employer about your willingness to learn might be really helpful in lots of ways, including helping you get part-time work so you can continue to increase your experiences and responsibilities.

I Need to Know is our series for teens in search of reliable, confidential advice about life’s tricky questions. Here are some questions we’ve already answered.

Susanne Gannon works for Western Sydney University. She receives funding from ARC.

Authors: Susanne Gannon, Associate Professor, Western Sydney University

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