Student engagement in careers activities is in decline

What might be behind the downward trend in students engaging with careers services? Chris Rea sets out new research findings and suggests some answers

Chris Rea is a graduate careers expert for Prospects at Jisc

High quality careers advice and guidance is critical to young people’s futures, not only helping to prepare them for the workplace, but also supporting them to acquire and identify the skills that they need to succeed in the world of work.

However, there are concerns that students and graduates are not engaging in these activities as much as they could. Careers services across the country have told us that the issue has become more pronounced following the pandemic.

Anecdotes about students simply not turning up, attendance down at events and a general lack of interest in careers has been commonplace over the last two years. So where are we now?

Attendance on a gradual decline

For the last three years Prospects Early Careers Survey has charted the study and career plans of around 5,000 students and graduates annually. It includes data on where students get support from as well as student attendance at different types of careers sessions over the last year, either online or in-person.

This year the findings echo what we have heard from careers professionals. Attendance in careers activities has dropped year-on-year across the board. Over the last year nearly one in five students (18 per cent) had not sought any advice at all, compared with 15 per cent the previous year. Students were most likely to seek advice from careers websites, careers professionals and family, in that order.

In terms of activities, the largest decline was people looking for CV, cover letter and job application guidance. We found 45 per cent of students had sought this type of advice compared with half of students surveyed last year. Careers lessons and workshops was the only activity that saw an increase in attendance, albeit slight – 45 per cent of students attended at least one of these sessions in the last year, compared to 42 per cent the previous year.

New categories were added this year. While this means we can’t track a change in engagement, they are a good indication of the type of activities students are interested in.

They included the most attended activity, talks by university staff (59 per cent of students), and the least attended, job interview preparation (28 per cent of students) – although this is likely due to the fact that this would be relevant to a smaller group of students.

The new normal

While attendance at careers appointments and activities continues on a downward trend, if we look at historical data it’s not a straightforward picture.

Students at careers advice appointments had dropped from 53 per cent in 2021 and 43 per cent in 2022 to 41 per cent this year. Attending talks by employers declined from 54 per cent in 2021 and 43 per cent in 2022 to 42 per cent in 2023. Attendance at careers events fell from 62 per cent in 2021 and 48 per cent in 2022 to 47 per cent in 2023.

This illustrates that while there is a continued decline in careers engagement since the pandemic, we are perhaps starting to see it plateau. Next year’s data should indicate whether we have arrived at a new normal.

Why are careers out of favour?

Students responding to this survey are very early on in their career journeys and in the midst of a cost of living crisis, a low-growth economy, the aftermath of a global pandemic, and well-documented ongoing mental health challenges. All of these factors have an influence, and the survey shines a light on shifting priorities.

Last year we saw a steep drop in engagement with careers activities as respondents to the survey cited mental health and motivation as their biggest challenges as they recovered from the impact of the pandemic.

While these issues haven’t gone away, the cost of living crisis means money worries have overtaken everything else to become the top concern. For students about to embark on university, cost was also cited as their biggest concern.

As a result, we found that nearly half of students were working part time and one in five respondents had some form of side hustle to support themselves during the cost of living crisis. It’s perhaps no surprise that the second biggest challenge students cited after money was balancing their commitments.

Lockdown restricted everyone’s lifestyle. For students this meant a lack of both social and work opportunities. There were fewer competing priorities. A return to campus, along with a new world of social and work opportunities has put a magnifying glass on managing priorities.

This year’s Institute of Student Employers’ Student Development Survey showed the impact this is having on student abilities. Pre-pandemic employers were most concerned about workplace skills such as leadership and commercial awareness. In 2023, employers cited attitudes and behaviours such as resilience and time management.

The value of careers guidance

For those who undertook careers advice and guidance, the findings of the survey illustrate its value.

Students who attend some form of careers activity are more likely to feel certain about their future career plans than those who do not engage.

Careers and industry professionals came out in top position as providing the most useful advice.

This highlights just how important it is for students and graduates – especially those from less advantaged backgrounds – to engage with careers professionals when they have the opportunity to do so. They can act as an important leveller, using their expertise to ensure that everyone has equal access to the information that they need to succeed.

Today’s students need support to help them learn how to prioritise, organise their time and juggle priorities. With immediate worries about money and living costs foremost in thoughts, it is understandable that future careers planning may take a back seat for many.

One response to “Student engagement in careers activities is in decline

  1. Question: could it be that students are so tired about C19 and the cost of living crisis that they do not have the immediate energy to think about short to mid term careers? They just want to survive?

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