Finding Ways to Cope: Opportunities for Young People in an Unpredictable Job Market


James Whiting is the Digital Career Workforce Team Leader at Orygen with 5 years’ experience across the employment services and career development sector. James is currently managing a team of online career consultants across multiple trials of digitally enhanced mental health care and a broader rollout across Victoria for youth impacted by mental ill-health. James has a particular interest in working with groups that are marginalised in the labour market to ensure all young people experience a fair and equitable career trajectory.

Young people were already facing significant stress navigating education, work and career opportunities, which has now been compounded by the effects of COVID-19. With the nature of careers also evolving, moving away from the linear career progression towards portfolio careers, it can feel overwhelming. In the youth mental health sector, we are highly attuned to the challenges young people face, but we also know that young people are resilient and adaptable so are well placed to cope with these new challenges with the right support and guidance.

Young people continue to be hit the hardest

Economic shocks bring existing disadvantages to the surface, amplifying the impacts on young people and resulting in ongoing vulnerability throughout both recovery and into their future careers. The current health and economic crisis due to COVID-19 is no different, with Australia’s youth unemployment rate increasing by 4.8% to 16.3% in July 2020, which is more than double the increase seen in the overall unemployment rate. With JobKeeper stimulating some businesses for now, it is possible the actual youth unemployment rate could be much higher.

Recent surveys also suggest there has been a significant increase in mental health concerns across the youth population due to COVID-19. Modelling undertaken by Orygen indicates that the crisis could result in a 30 per cent increase in common mental health issues among young people over the next three-to-four years. As the economy adjusts through COVID-19 recovery, it is critical that young people, particularly those experiencing poor mental health, are provided with evidence-based employment support, career counselling services and have access to mental health support to ensure they have every opportunity to engage with future career opportunities.

How to move forward when there seems to be no options?

My experience providing career advice to young people is that regardless of the situation they adapt and do whatever it takes to gain the experience that aligns to their values and longer term career goals. Setting long term career goals with the uncertainty of COVID-19 will be a challenge for young people, but also an opportunity to re-set, review and be creative when planning their next steps. Below are a few things I have noticed working with young people throughout the pandemic:

  1. Things keep moving

    Young people have not stopped advancing their careers. Young people are still finding work and working towards their passion. The pace has changed but young people are still seeking out support and moving forward with their careers at a pace that works for them. If we can keep positive stories coming to the young people we work with and others in our field they will feel a lot more motivated and hopeful.
  2. Young people are getting creative

    Young people are being creative, working out how their skills match with other industries and taking time to work out if new flexible forms of work can be beneficial. Many young people are using this time for professional development and training to hone their skills, so they are in a better position when looking for work. It is essential we continue to support the self-improvement work young people are interested in to shift industry and become more competitive in their field.
  3. Young people are seeking support that suits them

    Young people reach out when they need support. But with demand for career support increasing, we must ensure it is accessible. Career development is also hard work, so on top of other stressors, young people may need further support. Career professionals should work together with mental health professionals to assist young people to move through this period. Orygen and headspace services are already including career specialists within their clinical teams. It is hoped this will become more widespread due to the importance of employment and education for individuals’ mental health recovery and the broader economic recovery.

How Orygen is providing support that suits young people

Young people are acutely aware of the importance of career and employability skills in addition to formalised skills, qualifications and experience. At Orygen, we have developed and tested flexible approaches to career development, allowing young people with mental ill-health to access career information and support in ways that work for them. We know that online career resources are most effective when integrated with wider service provision, so with the surge of online resources, many will benefit from additional support and guidance.

Orygen Digital has developed a range of moderated online platforms that combine information on mental health and career advice with one-on-one moderated support from career consultants and mental health clinicians. The platforms also include social support through online peer workers, evidence-based career education and crowdsourcing activities that bring groups of young people together to discuss career related questions.

We have seen young people use the platform for standalone support and to enhance in-person support, creating effective and individualised strategies. The flexibility and expanded timelines allows for support in times of acute need and over longer periods of time, so young people can continue to explore and advance their careers as things change in their lives.

The young people I work with are always coming up with new career directions, new ways of applying career theory and new ways to approach their careers by utilising the flexibility of our programs. Providing access to career professionals and guided access to evidence-based resources in one place allows young people to do what they are great at; exploring, learning and applying what they learn in real life.

Young people will thrive – if we provide the support they need

Young people continue to show they can adapt to uncertainty in the labour market, and the COVID-19 crisis will not be any different. Career professionals will be essential in the response to current modelling on youth unemployment and mental health. Many organisations including Orygen are doing extensive research to assess the mental health impacts of COVID-19 and the associated stressors to provide a basis for further support. If we are ready with resources and approaches that can be accessed, modified and individualised, with good support we can work together with young people to reduce these impacts.