Virtual reality technology and collaborative projects can keep students switched on to careers, writes David Chapman (vice principal, Aston University Engineering Academy and Sixth Form)

It’s no wonder many young people are struggling to picture their future. When entire business sectors have been forced to close, relatives are being laid off and exams are cancelled, it’s hard to think beyond the next few months.

Students will no doubt be aware that it’s the youngest segment of the workforce – the group most heavily represented in retail, tourism and hospitality – who have been hit the hardest by the pandemic, according to labour market statistics from the Institute for Employment Studies.

Against a backdrop of economic uncertainty, today’s students are feeling less sure than ever about their career plans.

Yet Generation Z are the very people we need to fill the skills gap if the country is to recover from the pandemic and forge a new post-Brexit identity.

So how can careers education engage students at this critical time?

‘Task younger students with researching careers’

First off, we must encourage early aspirations. The government white paper, Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth, calls for careers education to be embedded in the life of every school and college.

This makes sense because when students have a goal in mind, they are motivated to study harder and achieve the grades they need.

As a university technical college (UTC), our students join us because they are attracted by a future in STEM, but they’re not always aware of the enormous diversity of careers that exist in these sectors.

To get students thinking about careers in a more focused way, we task our youngest students with researching career pathways.

Students interested in engineering might explore areas such as aerospace, food processing or robotics. They look into career progression, salary expectations and the qualifications they need, and prepare a presentation on their findings.

An approach like this gives providers an insight into which career paths their students are keen to follow, so they can deliver targeted advice, and link curriculum learning to careers, in line with the Gatsby benchmarks.

‘Use a personality test’

Second, we need to personalise career guidance. Generic careers education too often misses the mark. There is little point making students sit through careers talks that hold no interest for them.

Personalised careers advice is much more effective, but students need to find out which job types they are most suited to.

It’s important to help students understand their strengths, interests and character traits.

One of the tools we use provides a free online personality quiz which helps a student unlock their “spirit animal” based on their answers and then links them to suitable careers.

Even the most world-weary sixth-former enjoys seeing if they are a polar bear, seahorse or tiger.

With deeper self-knowledge, a student can make informed choices. A medical career is not only about being a heart surgeon, it’s also about being a microbiologist, pharmacologist or biomedical engineer, any of which could be the right fit for a young person interested in medicine.

‘Make use of apps, podcasts and videos’

Finally, we should use technology to expose students to the world of work.

Previous work experience placements have seen our students building a two-seater propellor aircraft in collaboration with industry experts. They are now embarking on a project with aviation charity The Air League, RAF Cosford and STEM Highflyers.

When the pandemic put a stop to hands-on experience of the workplace, colleges like us have had to find different ways to keep careers in the spotlight.

Fortunately, many employers have been flexible in providing opportunities for students, supported by organisations such as the Careers & Enterprise Company.

Another key route to engaging young people through technology is with apps, podcasts and videos, such as the WorldSkills Spotlight talks, which all appeal to a digitally fluent generation.

Virtual reality experiences are another sure-fire way to spark students’ interest. Engaging students in a gameified environment, immersing them into a job role and helping them visualise the education pathways to achieve it is incredibly powerful.

What young people need now is hope for the future.

Relevant, personalised and aspirational careers education will help today’s students leave uncertainty behind and find their place in the world.