Asking someone in their late teens to settle on a college course doesn't mean committing to a particular career, says Neil McCann, a career guidance teacher at St Vincent's Secondary School in Dublin.
“It’s not a conversation that college applicants need to get into. They won’t be graduating for four years, and with the rate at which technology changes, the jobs market may be very different by then. These days, a college education is not limited by what you study: a degree will take your career in many different directions.”
There are more than 4,000 courses available so whatever you are interested in will probably have a college, post-Leaving Cert or apprenticeship course linked to it. Don’t focus on one course: be open to whatever is out there.
McCann says that degrees and courses are a springboard, not a funnel to a narrow stream. “Very few of them will spit you into a particular job. Engineering graduates might go on to work in accounting, for instance. So what you pick on your CAO course won’t lock you in.”
Of course, we all know people who have dreamed of a particular, vocationally-oriented course since childhood – medicine, veterinary science and architecture being obvious examples.
“In school career guidance, we ask students to think back to when they were five, 12 and 15. Naturally enough, most career ideas they had fall by the wayside, but sometimes a kernel of an idea still exists. At the age of five, we all want to be astronauts or football players – no five-year-old dreams of being an accountant. A lot of people want to be doctors but when the CAO points come into play, they can be put off.
“But when it comes to making a decision, it’s worth teasing out: what is it about this career that appeals to you? What are your dreams and motivations? If you’re interested in medicine, could it be a starting point for a conversation about another [health science] course or career path? Anything that a student has considered is worth considering.”
Ultimately, McCann says, students will be more engaged with a course that interests them – and be less likely to drop out, so it’s a mistake to opt for a certain course purely because it pays well or because you’re likely to get the necessary points.
"Look at your areas of strength and weakness: careersPortal.ie can be very helpful here," McCann says.
Of course, it’s a wonderful coincidence if a student’s interests coincide with a big gap in the jobs market. “If you have a skill or interest in an area where there’s an identified shortage in the job market, such as languages or computer skills, it’s natural enough that you should consider it.”
Realism is dull, but it is important to bear in mind when choosing a college course. Whatever choice you make, McCann urges students to research it thoroughly: talk to people who work in the area for their perspective and ask about what college is like.
“If you’re engaged and enthusiastic or have a desire to learn about a particular topic or area, you will enjoy it and do better in terms of marks. When you commit four years to a degree, you want it to be something you enjoy.”
Does this mean students should ignore their parents’ protests and plump for that degree in drama, music or fashion?
“If you can make your hobby work, fantastic, but your choice should be based on research and likely realistic outcomes,” McCann says. “This is where parents and guidance counsellors can play a key role: we nurture ambitions while also being aware of the realities of the world of work, jobs market and paying bills; we know college is an experience and learning space while we’re also aware of careers and jobs afterwards.
“It is natural that a parent will mention ‘the real world’ or ‘not well-paid’ into their child’s career choices. And while it is true that you might do a drama degree but you’ll still have to work in four years, any education or further training equips you with the skills you need for different careers. If you have a degree, you are more likely to be employable, and that is why we promote higher and further education: if you can complete a degree, employers know that you have talent, the ability to learn and drive yourself on, and a broad range of skills.”