By Cathy Campbell

There is no doubt that young people today face what has been described as a complex and circuitous transition into the workforce (Bowlby & McMullen, 2002). Compared to previous generations, they are faced with higher expectations (Andres, 2002), more choices (Schwartz, 2004), and the requirements for more post-secondary education that is becoming increasingly expensive (Berger, Motte & Parkin, 2007). Perhaps worst of all, there are no guarantees that a good job awaits a young person who has invested a lot of time and money into post-secondary education (Côté & Allahar, 2007).

Further complicating the process is the pressure that young people feel to identify specific long-term goals for their educational and occupational pathways. Peavy (2001), an innovative educator and scholar in the career counselling field, noted that “the effect of this approach can be to present career decision-making as an ominous, irrevocable decision-making process which can lead to fears of failure rather than promoting thoughtful and meaningful actions” (p. 4).

Some of the conventional wisdom that young people hear creates further confusion. Kenneth Gray (2000), a professor of workforce education, notes that two of the most pervasive “pearls of wisdom” young people hear are: “You’d better go to university right after high school or you never will” and “Just get a degree and everything will work out” (p. 121). While there may be some truth to these assertions, they are not valid for many youth.

It is not uncommon to find young people who, despite having done everything “right”, are still languishing in debt and underemployment. They come out of university or college no clearer about what they want than when they started. They can’t find a good job despite having invested substantial time and money into post-secondary education and training, and they are left to wonder what they did wrong.

Overview of Research Project

As part of a recent research project funded by CERIC, we undertook to gain a deeper understanding of the educational and occupational pathways that high school graduates take after graduation. In particular, we wanted to know who and what helped and hindered a sample of young people to make a successful transition. To this end, from 2007 to 2008 we interviewed one hundred young people in four different Canadian sites: Prince Edward Island, Halifax, Guelph, and Calgary. Our sample included youth between the ages of 23 and 30 who had taken a variety of educational and occupational pathways after graduating from high school.


The majority of young people we interviewed either did not know what they wanted to do when they graduated from high school or subsequently changed their minds. Most participants recounted stories of making post-secondary and occupational decisions knowing very little about their chosen path or any alternatives. The majority received little career information or guidance; those who did receive career assistance were far more likely to get it from friends and family members than from professionals. Although a minority of participants received assistance from professionals, many of those who did found it extremely helpful.

The young people we interviewed utilized three strategies in their search for a career with which they could be satisfied: Navigating, Exploring, and Drifting. For most, the late teens and twenties was a time of exploration where they learned more about themselves and the career options open to them. While some found a satisfying place by their early twenties, most needed more time. As participants took on the responsibilities of marriage, parenthood, and homeownership, the opportunities to explore began to narrow. By their late twenties, most were becoming clear about the type of work they would either commit to or settle for. Some were still trying to find a place for themselves.

Our research identified a host of internal and external influences that either constrained or facilitated the pathways taken by young people. Internal factors such as self-confidence, personal agency, abilities, and tolerance for ambiguity all played a part in the pathways taken by the young people we interviewed. External influences such as support, family responsibilities, student financial assistance, expectations, and chance events were also very influential. We also found that there was a fair amount of turbulence in the early years of adulthood. No matter what point a young person was at in their career journey, more than likely it would change over time. Almost inevitably there was movement as new events (planned or unexpected) occurred and as resources (internal or external) grew or diminished.

Promoting Positive Career Transition with Youth

Many participants in our study said that they could have benefited from career guidance. This opinion is similar to what Magnusson & Bernes (2003) found when they surveyed the career planning needs of 7000 junior and senior high school students in Alberta. Of those surveyed, 70% expressed a need for additional support with their career planning.

The findings from our study suggest a number of ways that professionals can assist young people to make effective transitions into post-secondary education and/or the workplace. They are as follows:

  • Present a range of educational options in a way that they are equally valued.
  • Recognize that many high school graduates are not ready to attend post-secondary education immediately after high school.
  • Provide alternatives to youth who are not ready to go to university or college.
  • Help increase young people’s understanding of student loans.
  • Help youth translate interests and abilities into possible career options.
  • Be cautious about over-relying on career assessments.
  • Explore the career messages young people are receiving.
  • Encourage young people to make career plans, but remain open to change.
  • Encourage Navigators to investigate their choices.
  • Help Explorers access career exposure experiences.
  • Explore with Drifters what is constraining them from becoming proactive.
  • Engage parents in helping their children with career planning.
  • Expand the reach of career development services.


Our research highlights the reality that it is common for young people to spend many years after high school experimenting with post-secondary education programs and jobs, trying to figure out what constitutes satisfying work. Whatever plans they have when they graduate from high school, more likely than not will change over time as internal and external factors impinge. Even the high school graduate who is well informed and focused about his future will likely experience unpredictable events and influences that will change, or at least modify, the path that he takes.

There is a wealth of roles that career professionals can play to assist young people making a positive transition after they graduate from high school. Some of those roles have long been part of traditional counselling, while others are relatively new. Whatever role a career professional chooses, the focus should be on encouraging youth and their parents to put the young person’s interests, abilities, and aspirations at the centre of educational and career decision making.

Two publications have been developed from the findings that emerged from our research: The Decade After High School: A Professional’s Guide and The Decade After High School: A Parent’s Guide. The publications provide concrete suggestions on how professionals and parents can promote positive transition for young people after they graduate from high school. Both publications are downloadable free of charge from our website.


Cathy Campbell has over twenty years experience as a counsellor and program developer, and program manager in school, community college, and university settings. She was a co-investigator for the Stories of Transition research project that was conducted by Dalhousie University in partnership with the Canadian Education and Research Institute for Counselling (CERIC). Cathy is presently working on a PhD thesis based on the data gathered through Stories of Transition.


Andres, L. (2002). Educational and occupational participation and completion patterns of the Class of ’88. A ten year perspective. Vancouver: Commissioned report by the BC Council on Admissions and Transfer.

Berger, J., Motte, A., & Parkin, A. (2007). The Price of Knowledge 2007 .Ottawa: Canadian Millennium Scholarship Foundation.

Bowlby, J.W., McMullen, K. (2002). At a Crossroads: First Results for the 18 to 20 Year Old Cohort of the Youth in Transition Survey. Human Resources Development Canada, Statistics Canada.

Côté, J.E. & Allahar, A.L. (2007). Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Gray, K. (2000). Getting Real: Helping Teens Find Their Future. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Magnusson, K. & Bernes, K. (2003). Perceptions of Career Planning Needs: The Importance of Relational Supports for Students. Canadian Counselling Association Conference: Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Peavy, R.V. (2001). Under Construction. Toronto: Career-Life Skills Resources

Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More. New York: Harper Collins