School's out: how to help your teenager choose a career


Helping your high school children sort out a career path isn't always straightforward but it is essential for their eventual financial independence.

Many kids find choosing a career overwhelming with only six in 10 knowing what they want to do, according to a study of 14- to 15-year-olds by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS).

It found that they can have unrealistic expectations about their future. This can lead them to drop out of university, with around one in three Australian university students not completing their studies within six years.

teenager career

Teenagers need good information from parents, schools and career experts to help identify the range of jobs that suit them and the pathway to achieve their aspirations, says Jennifer Baxter, senior research fellow at the AIFS.

"Some may need help to modify their plans to suit their skills and the nature of the labour market."

Most schools shine a light on careers when students are 14 or 15. In Canberra, with its innovative Pathways career program, it is much earlier.

Kids spend time with a career adviser going through different options and it can be a valuable exercise as it helps them identify a range of suitable jobs and what they need to study to get there.

But, on the other hand, careers advisers' advice can throw up jobs that the students have no interest in.

Parents also often get in the way of what their kids want to do. They might have a strong sense of what they would like their kids to study but they have to accept that the decision is largely up to them.

"We've heard too many stories about students who have changed courses, dropped out because they made the wrong choices about what to study, students who didn't realise there were other entry pathways or who started a course with next to no idea of what they were signing themselves up for," said then federal education and training minister Simon Birmingham.

With university fees going up and the government planning to reduce the income threshold for HELP repayments to $42,000 from July 2018, it can be a costly exercise to change university courses.

While you want your kids to follow what they are interested in, you also want them to get a job.

AIFS found that there is a big disconnect between what kids want to do and what jobs are available: 60% of 14- to 15-year-olds aspire to a professional or managerial job but this figure is very high for a sector that employs only 35% of the population.

The study also reveals big gender differences that are limiting job prospects, particularly for girls.

While both boys and girls are attracted to medical and science professions as well as design, planning and architecture, AIFS found that boys often want to work in engineering or transport, information/communications technology or construction.

Girls rank being educators, lawyers and social professionals such as counsellors among their top choices.

Boys are much more likely than girls to want a trade or technical job, such as a mechanic or builder.

Girls are more likely than boys to want a job in personal services, such as hairdresser or beautician. One in 10 boys and girls say they would like to work in a job that involved sports or performance arts.

Run through the options with your children and, rather than asking them what they want to be, find out what they are interested in. For example, if you ask them if they want to train as an electrician, they may find it hard to get excited.

But if they told you they are interested in alternative energy and installing solar panels and batteries, one career path would be an electrician's course.


Susan has been a finance journalist for more than 30 years, beginning at the Australian Financial Review before moving to the Sydney Morning Herald. She edited a superannuation magazine, Superfunds, for the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia, and writes regularly on superannuation and managed funds. She's also author of the best-selling book Women and Money.
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