Career Planning in Secondary Schools: a guide for careers leaders

Career Planning in Secondary Schools: a guide for careers leaders

Career planning, executed in an organised, strategic manner, not only gives professional direction but creates awareness of one’s personality and skills. It helps in getting the necessary education and occupational support to reach career goals, and eventually leads to a more balanced life thanks to the right career choice, and resultant job safety and financial stability.

This guide will help you learn the basics of career planning and the steps to take from setting career goals to creating a solid career plan. We give highlighted examples for secondary schools students and their careers leaders as career planning has the potential to bring better and more positive outcomes the sooner it starts.

What is career planning?

Career planning is the process and strategy of identifying an individual’s skill set, interests and values, and discovering educational and occupational opportunities to determine career goals and the career plan to achieve them.

People usually first encounter career planning in secondary school but it can be a key element of further education and a recurrent activity in an adult’s working life as well, especially when someone is thinking of making a career turn and considering the possibility of changing jobs or moving to entirely different fields.

Individuals can engage in career planning on their own or with the help of mentors, counsellors and, in the case of secondary school students, careers leaders will likely be their first point of contact.

With this guide, we will focus on that early stage, helping careers leaders in being the compass for students’ career planning process so they can do efficient self-assessment and explore wider opportunities in education and the job market. 

Read this guide and support your students with more thorough career plans so they can feel empowered to take their first steps towards their career goals.

Why is career planning important?

Career planning can be extremely important in an individual’s life, especially when it takes place as early as secondary school education.

CFE research looked at careers guidance’s impact at London schools and found that around 67% of students who were not confident about continuing in education, training or employment before taking part in careers activities were very or quite confident after doing so.

66% said that careers advice at school has helped them to match what they like doing with possible subject or career choices. Over half of the students reported that they became more aware of the importance of their grades in helping them achieve the career pathway they want (57%) and that it increased their knowledge of the types of employers offering careers suitable for them (51%).

According to a survey on higher education graduates’ career planning by the UK Government’s Department for Education, those who had clearer career plans as graduates were more likely to have reported positive outcomes (employment or further study) two and a half years after graduation.

On the other hand, career planning doesn’t only lead to better educational and occupational opportunities. Let’s review the benefits and objectives of career planning in a nutshell.

The importance and benefits of career planning are manifold:

  1. Career planning is the first door to open to career success.
  2. Self-assessment and building self-knowledge is a key part of career planning, potentially leading to overall life success and work-life balance.
  3. Starting career planning as early as secondary education can provide clarity about students’ future, along with job safety and financial stability achieved later.

The main objective of career planning is:

  • To explore and synthesise career-related information
  • Set a career goal
  • Make career-related decisions and take actions (from standard education through extracurricular training to apprenticeships)
  • To reach the set career goals and gain a general work-life balance

For maximum impact, an ‘active’ mindset is needed for career planning, to actively engage in finding the answer to the question: what is it that I want to do in my working years (perhaps but not necessarily for the rest of my life)?

Bear in mind, career planning can work on several timelines. You can plan the next five, 10 or 15 years if you’d like. With students, you try to prepare them for the long term if possible. Strategic career planning is successful career planning which, indeed, is the key to career success.

If students are able to plan their early career years, they will gain a significant advantage: finding career goals in the short or long term in itself can be motivational for them and absolutely enjoyable at the same time. As explained later in the article, self-assessment is also critical for career planning and can act as a practical wireframe for students’ futures which is beneficial not only for work but general life success.

While career planning can even be a continuous process in someone’s life, if young people can figure out what their dream job is and what suits them the best while at school, and their careers leaders are there to show them a possible path to take there, career objectives will become instantly manageable and reachable. This kind of reassurance in a secondary school student’s (and their parents’) life is of priceless value.

The career planning process, step by step

The process of career planning can and should be carefully thought out, strategic, systematic and timely. The latter’s importance gets highlighted especially when secondary school students are getting closer and closer to their final exams, also deciding about their future in further education and later in the job market.

The basic steps of a career planning process

Career planning might include fewer or more steps depending on the individual, as the experience, prospects and opportunities of a student heading to university and an adult switching job fields will be completely different. Nevertheless, the four basic steps of career planning are always the same:

  1. Self-assessment
  2. Career exploration
  3. Career identification
  4. Career plan

Career planning process: Self-assessment

Self-assessment or self-exploration is the first step of career planning. This is where students need to examine their skills, interests and values, along with any educational or occupational experience they might already have.

A few self-assessment questions you can discuss with your students:

  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • What are your passions?
  • What subjects do you enjoy at school?
  • Which topic is your greatest knowledge?
  • What are your best qualities?
  • What qualities of yours would you like to improve?
  • What interests you in the world?
  • What career or specific job type do you value most and why?

This is the step of career planning where you can already ‘get real’ with students: talk to them about what is actually waiting for them outside the school walls. Ask them about their salary expectations or explain to them whether their career choice is in high demand or not using Labour Market Information (LMI). The goal is never to take away their motivation but prepare them and have them see their true potential and career opportunities.

Career planning process: Career exploration

At the career exploration step of the career planning process, your students are the small fish in the sea. With your guidance, they will need to do a significant amount of research to see what career options fit their expectations and everything they have learned about themselves at the self-assessment step. In particular, they have several options:

  • Researching work fields and job profiles
  • Collecting labour market data
  • Interviewing representatives of specific jobs
  • Attending career fairs
  • Looking at apprenticeship and job shadowing opportunities

At first, a classic brainstorming between you and your student can help kick off this process but if you use software like Xello, both of your lives will get much easier. Xello will offer you a 500+ career profile database with up-to-date job market data and practical information such as occupational interviews based on the unique results of your students’ tests completed on the platform in the beginning. Everyone saves time with Xello while getting immediate access to invaluable information that greatly supports the career planning process.

If you cover all the above options, you will see both the ‘official’ and practical side of career opportunities, ensuring that data meets life: someone aspiring to be a photographer can find several sources of information about achievable salaries but talking to an actual person practising photography can reveal other bits you might not find in any database.

They can share details about how much someone can earn as a commercial photographer versus taking the artistic way, or how selling photos might differ based on where they live and work in the country. Students can also learn about what personality type thrives the most as a photographer: they may expect a continuously buzzing social life in the job when it also involves a not negligible amount of alone time set aside for photo editing, for example, that requires attention to detail and patience.

These informal sessions with representatives of a specific profession or employers can truly boost the process and impact of career planning. A longitudinal UK study found that teenagers at the age of 16 taking part in career talks had significantly better earnings at the age of 26.

Make sure your students see both sides of the coin and later they will massively benefit from all the research you put in the process of early career planning together. As an OECD PISA 2018 dataset highlighted, activities like attending job fairs and speaking with a careers advisor at school are most strongly associated with more positive outcomes in career development. It is clear that careers leaders play an absolutely vital role in their students’ later career success.

Career planning process: Career identification

After the exploration stage, comes the career identification step where students choose a possible career option. If the previous steps were done successfully, they have to be able to narrow down their alternatives to one or a couple of jobs they would be happy to pursue after school.

Once they have identified their career choice, they can look at the educational and career path leading there. This can include starting apprenticeships or doing job shadowing while still at school or taking on projects that they can later use as reference work when applying to an FE (further education) college, sixth form college, or university. Someone interested in journalism can join the school paper and use the work completed there in their post-16 or post-18 applications. That may help them get an editor or writer role at their university campus newspaper, and later land another position at an even bigger publication.

Naturally, students have to see what qualifications they must obtain to get closer to their career goal. In Xello, they can explore more than 3500 colleges and universities with enrollment data, area maps and information on student life, accommodation and courses. When they have saved their favourites, they can build a plan (or several) in their “My plan” section of Goals & Plans that their careers leaders can reference in one-to-one guidance sessions.

All in all, students can look into these options at the career identification step:

    • Apprenticeships
    • Job shadowing
    • Volunteer work
    • Specialised courses or project work
    • Working with a mentor

As a careers leader, you can support them in finding opportunities for any of the above but make sure to create a good balance: have them actively work in this process and keep them as highly engaged as possible. As mentioned before, early career planning will have a great influence on their life later whether we look at it from the practical side (simply being prepared for a day in a specific job they would look like to have) or more holistically (making sure that they make good career choices that lead to a fully balanced life) — one way or another, their interest in perfecting their own career planning process is key.

Career planning process: Career plan

A career plan is an action plan to be created at the end of your current career planning process. This is where students have to set clear career goals, short and long term if possible, and detail the path leading to them. A career plan will also consist of a summary of results from the previous stages of career planning; it represents a collection of steps to follow to eventually land that dream job.

At this point, students have investigated all educational and job market opportunities from school projects to apprenticeships, from finding extracurricular courses to selecting universities or finding a mentor from their desired field of work. If possible, they can include potential employers, companies they would like to work at or prepare an initial career strategy leading to entrepreneurship.

Careers leaders can urge their students to also prepare all materials that will be useful in the coming months or years for them, for example, creating their first CVs and cover letters.

It’s equally important to set achievable deadlines and to set one for all the steps outlined in the career plan — this will keep students on track and help careers leaders to check on their progress and offer them further support while they are still at school. It’s especially crucial to mark deadlines set by external institutions such as dates for college, university or apprenticeship applications.

8 steps to create a career plan

Finally, let’s discuss how to create a career plan. We’ll give concrete examples for secondary school students and their careers leaders to guide this step of the career planning process:

1. Create short and long term career goals with the SMART approach (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely).

Example: Get a photography degree at Cambridge School of Art (3-years-plan)

2. Include background information, e.g. qualifications, volunteer experience.

Example: Volunteer photographer at the local career fair in Brighton.

3. Have an overview of outcomes from the self-assessment step, e.g. interests, skills, personality type.

Example: Public speaking (skill), Travel photography (interest)

4. Plan the necessary career steps to reach your career goals.

Example: Apply for BA Photography at Cambridge School of Art by X (date), Find a photographer mentor to work with during university (date)

5. Place all the planned steps on a timeline to set exact deadlines, visualise and follow future progress.

6. Add the career steps already completed for motivation and clarity.

Example: Brighton Photography Course for Kids and Teens (2019)

7. Think about barriers for reaching your career goals and write down ways to overcome them, e.g. financial, educational.

Example: Cost of college (part-time work might be needed for uni years, if so, list of local businesses looking for paid part-time help)

8. Keep your career plan updated, adding and adjusting elements throughout your progress.

With career goals set and a timeline to follow, a career plan will work in favour of both students and career leaders in the process of career planning. Both parties will have a baseline to return to or to adjust if needed, but most of all having a strategic approach and action plan will help to navigate students’ next life stage.

Career planning with Xello

Career planning is full of discoveries about one’s self. Students can learn about their interests, skills and values early on so they can explore and find suitable occupations and start the journey to fulfilling their dream job mission.

Career leaders’ main goal is to assist them along the way at all steps of the career planning process, from the first one-on-one discussions about students’ initial expectations about the job market to following their actual progress taking steps towards their set career goals. In other words, careers leaders are students’ compass in career planning — if they are looking for not just further support but a game changing tool for these career planning activities, Xello can be the perfect companion.

With Xello, both students and educators can do all this through an easy-to-use online edtech platform. Interactive skill-building lessons and assignments, career, learning style and personality tests, skills assessment, career profile or college and university options matching students’ unique assessments are just a couple of features Xello users can have access to in support of a career planning process.

If you are interested in improving your school’s careers guidance program and giving further and excellent support for your students’ career planning, contact us. A Xello demo is always free, book yours now!

If you’re not quite ready to make a decision, check out our free guide on what to consider when looking for a high-quality careers education program. This will help you research and evaluate your options with a checklist to go through considering software purchase for your careers guidance program at school as well as steps to ensure smooth implementation when the time comes.