What do you want to do when you grow up?

A guide to careers services for young people

Closeup portrait of young woman thinking daydreaming deeply about something scratching head looking upwards, isolated on white b

Ask young people what they're looking for in a future career, and they'll almost certainly have a clear answer: fulfilling, creative, well-paid work.

When it comes to identifying what that work might be, though, many are stumped. Girls, apparently, are far slower off the mark than boys, with Oxford University researchers revealing last month that male undergraduates tend to start both thinking about and acting on their career goals much earlier than their female peers.

The answer, of course, is good careers advice. But the government is concerned that young people aren't getting the service they need, and has launched an inquiry to consider whether schools in particular are failing to give young people enough information about the range of options available to them.

"Good quality careers advice is exceptionally important but current provision often seems patchy and complex, falling short in providing young people with comprehensive advice about the range of career opportunities available," says Neil Carmichael, chair of the Education Select Committee.

"While routes to university may be well mapped out, alternatives such as apprenticeships and vocational qualifications are largely ignored."

It doesn't help that some young people have unrealistic expectations, believing they are far more likely to get a creative job than they really are, for example, or that they'll be earning a lot more than average.

Most, though, are well aware that they may have to take what they can get to begin with, and then work their way up to something a bit more fulfilling.

But how do you work out where to start?

If you're not sure what you'd like to do, there are various online aptitude tests that aim to give you an idea of the sort of careers you'd be best suited to. The starting point is usually your existing qualifications and experience - such as they are.

These tests then try to establish your individual strengths and weaknesses, as well as your personality type: do you prefer working alone or in a team, for example; would you rather be in an office or outdoors?

There's a rather lighthearted one at iCould, for example, that nonetheless makes some useful suggestions.

Rather more down to earth is the National Careers Service's Skills Health Check, a set of online questionnaires designed to give you information about your skills, interests and motivations in the workplace.

"Remember: you don't have to know what you want to do for the rest of your life," the site advises. "Sometimes it's not about finding the perfect job, but just finding a good match for your strengths and interests."

Meanwhile, London-based charity YouthNet has an online site that helps young people to look beyond their qualifications alone to find marketable skills. Tick the boxes that apply - everything from being a school prefect to having a blog - and it shows how these can be presented to best effect in a job application.

Specifically for graduates, Prospects, too, has an online planner allowing young people to fill in their skills, motivations and desires to work out the perfect job. It also has a site that gives examples of possible careers based on their degree subject.

For those, on the other hand, that don't want to go to university there's, well, Not Going to Uni. It gives a huge range of alternatives to standard further education, from apprenticeships to gap years and distance learning courses, with tips on finding the option that best suits your talents.

And there's much more information on apprenticeships here on the government website, including information on the types of placement available and advice on how to write an application.

In a survey last month, Standard Life found that most people give a number of different opportunities a try before finally making a career choice and working hard to move up the ladder.

"As we go through our lives, what motivates us and makes us happy in our job changes," says Julie Hutchison, a consumer finance expert with the company. "For some, the priority is moving up the career ladder, for others, having the security to support their family."

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that, whatever you find yourself doing, it's always possible to change your mind.

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