By Cathy Campbell

Practical advice on successfully navigating the tumultuous transition from school to work

Despite the rhetoric that today’s young people have been pampered, the reality is that they are confronted with more challenges than previous generations as they make the school-to-work transition:

  • Lengthy stints in training institutions
  • Student debt that takes years to pay off
  • An enigmatic labour market
  • Having to put marriage and family on hold
  • Endless sorting through an overwhelming number of options to find a viable career fit

Further complicating the process is the expectation that young people’s careers should follow a linear, predictable route from high school to post-secondary education, and then on to a permanent, full-time job. Many adults, with the sharp clarity of hindsight, would have to admit their own career journeys weren’t all that orderly. Few are doing work today they could have predicted, or even imagined, they’d be doing when they were 20. And yet, the “Career Myth” persists. The Career Myth goes something like this: “Have a plan (preferably the right one and preferably made early), stick with it, and you’ll proceed in a straight line from school to work to retirement.”

Because the Career Myth is considered the normal or correct way to make the school-to-work transition, it is held up by youth and those around them as the gold standard to which young people should aspire – and to which they are measured. Little wonder then that so many young people feel anxious about finding a career when the reality is so out of line with what they and others expect.

What alternatives do we have to the Career Myth?

What can we offer young people, if not the mythic idea of security and certainty? In response to this challenge, I have proposed eight “Career Crafting Techniques” that speak to young people’s experiences and draw on recent career counselling approaches that embrace unpredictability and change. The techniques marry the strengths of more traditional approaches to career counselling with chaos-friendly methods that normalize the convolutions that characterize many young people’s career journeys.

Forefront in the thinking of each technique is the emphasis on doing first, reflecting second; being strategic about what the young person is doing; keeping change and unpredictability clearly in the picture; and continuing to move forward in the absence of having made a firm decision.

My recent publication, Career Crafting the Decade After High School, describes the techniques and provides practical suggestions on how career professionals can operationalize and integrate these ideas into their current practice. Below is a sampling from the book on how to view conventional career development concepts through a new lens.

Career crafting diagram

Develop a “shopping list.” The term “shopping list” is a shorthand way of describing the patterns and themes (interests, abilities, values, temperaments, environments, etc.) that develop over time and which reflect a young adult’s vocational identity.

By assembling, in one place, the key elements that the young person would like to have in their work life, they are more apt to be able to imagine and experiment with education and work options that might align with what they are seeking.

This shopping list takes the pressure off young people to make a hastily-conceived, ill-informed long-term career decision. Instead, it encourages them to have an ongoing dialogue about what they really want their life to be like, and gives them an evolving frame of reference for generating and evaluating options for fit.

Take another step. Given that most young adults’ career journeys are unknowable from the outset, it would seem wise for them to focus on incremental steps and decisions, rather than on long-term career planning.

As long as young people are dwelling on missteps from the past or obsessing about the future, they are distracted from focusing on the here and now. By concentrating on one step only – the immediate next step – young people are able to break decision-making into doable bite-size pieces, rather than becoming overwhelmed with making the right, best, or lasting Big Decision.

So, the key is to start doing. And keep doing. By taking the first step, young people start learning new things about themselves and the work that might be satisfying to them. If each new step incorporates the learning from the previous one, it is more likely that the steps will build upon each other, viable options will begin to emerge, and a valid “plan” will gradually take form.

Plan with a pencil. The fact that goals often change and plans never work as neatly as they appear on paper is no reason to abandon planning altogether. What’s important is that young people not become rigidly locked into one pre-determined goal, rejecting the possibility that new information or alternatives could come to light or factors outside their control could influence the outcome.

It was H.B. Gelatt who first asserted that career goals were best approached with “positive uncertainty.” By knowing what they want, but not being too sure, young people can treat their goals as hypotheses – educated guesses about what they’ll do and what will occur. This allows young people to be motivated, but not limited, by the goals they have set and the plans they have made. They may move forward, reassured that their pencil plans can be “erased” and re-written when new information surfaces or circumstances change.


Cathy Campbell, PhD, has over 20 years’ experience as a career counsellor, researcher, program developer and manager in school, community college, university and government settings. She has extensive experience at both a client and program level in helping young adults make effective transition into post-secondary education and into the workplace.

Career-Crafting-3D-CoverCareer Crafting the Decade After High School: Professional’s Guide (2015) is available as a book, ebook or free pdf. It is published by the Canadian Education and Research Institute for Counselling (CERIC). Learn more or download a copy at