The temptation when helping your children to make future career choices is to view them as an extension of yourselves. If you wish you’d been a teacher rather than an accountant (or vice versa), it’s almost too easy to guide your children into making the choices that you didn’t.

However, with a UCAS deadline looming in mid January, degree and further education choices are often a crucial step in a career path so it’s important to make some decisions before this first hurdle – or at least elect upon a course of study that’s suitably general to make a variety of pathways available later on if necessary.  

Careers in 2022 and beyond

The world of work is vastly different to the one we were familiar with upon graduation  only 25-30 years ago. In that time, computers have become not only widespread in the workplace but at home too, and even though basic mobile phones were relatively common by the mid to late nineties, the advent of the smartphone means that jobs can be carried out quite literally at your fingertips.

Jobs that existed thirty years ago – the shorthand secretary, for example – are now completely obsolete, just as jobs that are common and essential today are likely to be non-existent in another thirty years.

It can be tempting when helping your children make career choices to base suggestions on your own experiences and perceptions of what is required in the workplace, or even what constitutes a ‘real job’ in your view. Ever looked down your nose at a social media star or influencer? Do that at your peril; many earn six figure sums every year, and have media careers as a result as television and radio presenters that are likely to outlast the platforms where they started.

Recording contracts are as likely to be gained from TikTok as they are from a demo tape (as Eurovision star Sam Ryder’s success demonstrates), and business ideas can be launched as effectively from Instagram as a dedicated website.

It can also be worrying if you don’t have contacts within your own networks to help them get a rung on their chosen job ladder – most apprenticeships and junior posts were secured through friends of friends until relatively recently. It’s easy to feel ineffectual and as though you can’t help your child with these choices.

It could even be that your children are the first to go on to higher or further education in your family. Many traditional careers haven’t necessarily required a degree to do well in the past, and if this isn’t your experience it can be difficult to help your child make academic choices and decisions about how, where, and what they study.

Our tips below will help you guide your child towards a career path that might be well-suited to them, although it's important to remember that nothing is fixed, and if they change their mind in a year or two (or even later!), it's not the end of the world.

1. Consult careers advisors

The careers advisor at school used to have a dubious reputation for making academic and suitability judgements on future employment prospects – those of us old enough to remember this incarnation no doubt have clear memories of the school troublemaker being guided into dead-end jobs that were unquestionably a form of continued and potentially lifelong ‘detention’ for their school behaviour.

However, the modern careers advisor is very different; their job is to keep up to date with career trends, new ways of working, and the best academic routes into them – if appropriate – to get there. They don’t just support the students, either.

They help parents to understand working practices that might be very different to what they are used to, and how to help their children achieve their goals in readying themselves for work. After all, it’s difficult to support your child in their career aspirations if you don’t even understand the job title.

2. Think about what your child is good at

Some abilities will be obvious; an aptitude for languages or mathematics, a keen interest in facts and figures, or a love of analysis. However, those are just the academic necessities for a lot of career paths. For example, a budding teacher with a fear of speaking in public isn’t going to have much impact – or ability to control a classroom – if they seize up with terror whenever they have to address a group of people.

Activities that require teamwork can help – drama groups or music lessons requiring working and interacting as an ensemble exchanging ideas are particularly effective.

Other abilities are less obvious or aren’t necessarily viewed as immediate essential traits for a career path – kindness, compassion, thoughtfulness, good nature, directness – all useful qualities for a variety of careers.

3. Consider your child's interests

Teenagers are by nature secretive – it’s a natural part of finding who they are as an individual separate to their parents – but it’s worth having both the “what would you like to do” and “what do you see yourself doing” conversations (they aren’t necessarily the same one). It can feel absolutely impossible to give career advice in a fast-changing job market, but you can certainly give person-centred advice that highlights valuable transferable skills.

The world is changing so rapidly that it’s worth acknowledging that your child probably already knows more about their potential career fields than you do, and even who are the current leaders in those fields. What they don’t know is how to give themselves as broad a palette of skills as possible – find interests in the arts, the sciences, even computing and coding (skills that are never wasted!) that at the very least will make your child an attractive prospect for admissions tutors at university entrance time.

A good question to ask a child that is completely stuck and overwhelmed at the choices in front of them is “if you could do one thing right now, what would it be?” This can often identify immediate needs that are ‘doing’ activities – eating a snack, going for a walk, playing some music – and are useful for clearing their minds to sit down with a sheet of paper and identify what they are good at.

This also isn’t necessarily limited to school subjects; it can include things as simple – yet important – as “do people come to you for advice?” and even “can you cook a simple meal?” The first indicates empathy and good sense, the second, a degree of executive function and the ability to follow a set of steps or a recipe (for which read instructions).

4. Find a mentor

If your child has identified a few potential careers, the next step is to find people doing those jobs who can talk you through any essential next steps, as well as any potential sidesteps into other careers.

Social media is a valuable tool here; Twitter and Facebook both give you access to companies and their employees who may be willing to talk to your child, and Instagram and TikTok are useful for more creative organisations who have a more essential and visual social media presence. They may wish to keep their interactions to social media, or follow up any direct messages with a more formal email to head office.

Encourage your child to ask potential mentors questions such as what degrees they studied, and whether that was the ‘right’ degree. Would another have facilitated their career path more effectively? Or did it in fact not matter what degree they did, as the process of acquiring and analysing information was actually important enough? Did they have any interests outside of their field, and if so, did they help them to discover skills that would make them more successful professionally?

Your child’s mentor might even be able to offer work experience at their organisation or be able to offer or suggest internships or apprenticeships. Some companies even pay a percentage of university fees in exchange for a set period of employment after graduation. The best time to fit this in if there is time is during a school holiday in Year 11 (Lower Sixth), so that there is still time to make degree choice changes if your child discovers a career isn’t for them after all.  

5. No decision is set in stone

It’s very easy at the age of 17 or 18 to view these decisions as all or nothing, and that any wrong decision here is irreversible. With the benefit of 25 years or so in the workplace behind you, you know that isn’t the case (but again, when do teenagers ever listen to their parents?!).

If your child is still undecided, it’s worth working with the school to identify the most broad degrees possible in terms of onward career paths, or onward postgraduate level qualifications that can take a general degree down a specific pathway.

Gap years can be valuable to add a ‘missing’ A Level that might be essential for a last-minute change of direction, and even to do further research without the ‘noise’ of school adding distractions.

Whatever the outcome, your most essential role as a parent is to be a quiet and understanding support to your child at the most important stage of their education.