Choosing the right career after school in midst of a global pandemic

Will coronavirus crisis change skillsets students need to be employable in the future?

While the experience of students entering college in 2020 will be shaped by efforts to halt coronavirus, there are many things that have not changed. Photograph: iStock

While the experience of students entering college in 2020 will be shaped by efforts to halt coronavirus, there are many things that have not changed. Photograph: iStock


There is a danger that the focus on “calculated grades” will distract Leaving Cert students from the core questions they need to consider as they transition from school to the next stage in their career path.

We may have a very different Leaving Cert but we still have to make career choices. It is time that prospective students think less about the intricacies of the new grading system and more about what they want most out of life.

It is probably easier to talk about the “new normal” and how things have changed than normalising the current pandemic by making decisions in a more customary fashion. A positive side of the changes to this year’s Leaving Cert is that we can talk about a normalising of the entry to third level for those entering higher education in 2020.

Notwithstanding the new system for calculating Leaving Cert grades, the types and ranges of careers and life opportunities have never been as plentiful and accessible. The Leaving Cert results, however calculated, are a gateway to the next stage of life choices rather than an end in themselves.

It is important that the future freshers of 2020 think and make decisions about future career and education choices without being constrained by the national lockdown. While the pandemic has wreaked havoc on society, its impact on the long-term future of the current Leaving Cert class will likely be substantially less extreme. All of the higher education programmes, further education options and other career choices are still available.

So, it is timely to shift our conversations around to the choices and opportunities available for the current Leaving Cert graduates and how they might think about them in the face of the pandemic.

While the experience of students entering college in 2020 will, no doubt, be shaped by the ongoing efforts to stop coronavirus, there are still some “normals” that have not changed as a result of the pandemic. Principal among them will be the skills, abilities and interests of the students.

Change of mind

For students considering college, it is likely the disruption that coronavirus has inflicted on the final stages of the secondary school year will have created greater uncertainty about college choices. Many sixth years may have planned to delay their final CAO decisions until the end of June. The physical act of sitting the examinations can sometimes serve as a final act of crystallising thinking and marking the decision time.

For that reason, the CAO change-of-mind facility is heavily used in an average year as students grapple with their final preferences. But the general air of uncertainty that the remodelling of the Leaving Cert has caused need not interfere with the decisions facing students transitioning from secondary. Indeed, more than ever, applicants should be reflecting on their true interests and abilities in making those important career choices.

Normalising the decision in these abnormal times will most likely result in the best decision. The evidence on performance in higher education clearly points to better college outcomes for students who have selected courses based on their genuine interest and abilities. Knowing what you are good at rather than how many points you will achieve will likely serve you better in the long run when making college choices.

Universal traits

There may also be a tendency to assume the pandemic has fundamentally changed the nature of the skillsets that students need to be employable in the future. In that regard, it is interesting to reflect on the skills most prized by employers currently, being a team player, the ability to act and think creatively and interpersonal skills such as communication and adaptability. These are skills that are universal regardless of the pandemic. They are skills recognised within higher education as essential components of graduate outcomes and will feature strongly in any quality-assured higher education experience.

The plans for first-year entry are well-advanced across the higher education sector. Third-level institutions have generally adapted to the restrictions introduced, moving operations into a virtual world, and managing (albeit it in a contingency fashion) to complete the academic term and assess the students’ skills and learning. Now that there is clarity on how Leaving Cert students will be graded, attention is shifting to supporting, in a meaningful way, the transition from second to third level. Prospective applicants should be engaging with their higher-education provider of choice and ensuring that their programme choices are really what interests them.

It may be tempting in the current situation to be too focused on the outcomes of the expected grades and the CAO points tally rather than the meaningful engagement with a career path and programme of study that genuinely excites the interest of the learner and which leads them to positive career outcomes.

Dr Derek O’Byrne is registrar and vice-president for academic affairs at Waterford Institute of Technology