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Moments of Choice: how young people make career decisions


August 25, 2016 Susannah Hume & Jessica Heal

Today, young people across England receive their GCSE results. Many will now be looking forward to the next exciting step in their education; for others, it may be a time for to reflect on what their options are and what they would like to do next. In these ‘moments of choice’, young people may seek information and support to help them make decisions. But will they find information online that can help them make good choices?

A new report by The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) finds that although young people feel like they have access to all the careers information they might need, this is not translating to a generation of young people more informed than their predecessors about their options and the future of the labour market.

BIT was commissioned by the Careers and Enterprise Company to talk to young people about their future careers and aspirations, the resources they draw upon to make these decisions and the context in which these decisions occur. We conducted 43 interviews and five observations with young people aged 11-18 and careers guidance professionals (CGPs) in eleven schools and colleges across England. Our key findings are outlined below:

  • Online career advice is challenging to navigate. The information on the internet is dispersed across multiple sites, each offering different information in different ways. This contributes to some young people disengaging from the full range of available information.
  • Information is available, but not accessible. Despite young people saying that they have access to the information they want, we found their knowledge and awareness of careers was generally low, outdated and in some cases inaccurate.
  • Young people’s aspirations did not align with the direction of the job market. The young people we spoke to generally had a limited understanding of the breadth of opportunities in the jobs market. Even the most open and engaged young people demonstrated a low awareness of the range of potential careers open to them, particularly new jobs in emerging industries. Instead, we found that they aspired to jobs that were around when their parents and teachers were entering the workforce.
  • Career advice is often focused on ‘moments of choice’ when a young person is facing a decision that will set pathways or close down options. However, ‘moments of inspiration’ when young people are building an understanding of what types of jobs they would like to do, are arguably equally important.
  • In addition, career advice is often focused on ‘cold’ information such as long-term directions, salary and qualification requirements. Although young people told us they were interested in this information, what seemed to drive their preferences was ‘hot’ information that helped them develop a picture of what that job would be like for them.

Across the interviews, we noticed a number of behavioural biases which may influence how young people seek and use data to make informed choices. For example, ‘confirmation bias’ may cause young people to privilege information that supports their preconceptions, while ‘choice overload’ may mean that when a young person is presented with too many options they get overwhelmed and avoid the decision altogether.

These cognitive biases and mental shortcuts can move young people away from the more informed decisions that policymakers would ideally like them to make, both to ensure their successful transition into work, and to secure the future of the British economy. If a young person is not taking full advantage of the information available to them, they could miss out on opportunities.

Recently, there has been a strong drive towards increasing labour market information available to young people. We support this drive, but argue that instead of simply providing more information, a better approach may be to thoughtfully design the context in which young people seek careers information and make decisions. Our research suggests that supporting informed decisions depends more on the how and when of data provision than the what of the information provided.

In light of this, we propose that informed choice is best supported by information provision that:

  1. Understands where young people are coming from and their context in the moment that they are accessing the information;
  2. Is trustworthy;
  3. Is personal and meaningful to the individual seeking advice;
  4. Gives young people agency and is transparent about how their input preferences have led to the advice or information presented by the website;
  5. Structures information provision so that bigger decisions are broken down into smaller choice sets;
  6. Provides information when needed, rather than overloading young people with information that isn’t salient, relevant or useful to them at that time;
  7. Helps influencers (teachers, parents or carers, careers guidance professionals) give meaningful advice to young people; and
  8. Signposts actions.

This research sits alongside the substantial body of knowledge that already exists, both in academia and in the long experience of careers guidance professionals and sector bodies. We look forward to doing further work to build on the preliminary insights in this report, alongside other relevant partners within the education sector.

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