Wednesday, February 08, 2023

Career Counsellors in Secondary Schools


Last week I was volunteering at my secondary school providing career talks, I had my first encounter with a career counsellor. The formal designation is Education and Career Guidance Counsellor or ECG Counsellor.

It's pretty clear that Minister Chan now has his hands full with reforming the education system to cope with an AI-enabled future, now we have folks who focus on career guidance for secondary school students. 

In my opinion, the implementation of this is still quite iffy because the counsellor I met had to cover not one but two secondary schools, and I'm not sure how much of a difference this would make to students if counsellors were spread so thin. Do note that my alma mater has two counsellors in charge of mental health likely because of the incident at River Vally Secondary School. 

My encounter with that specific career counsellor, sadly, did not paint a positive picture of this new role. Prior to our career panel, the counsellor gave an interesting pep talk on how ECG counsellors fit into the school ecosystem and explained why he had to engage with us. I perked up when he said that some of the things that might be presented may not align with a modern view of career counselling citing the old-school preferences of "Sciences over Arts" as an example of such a bias.

He got me really hyped up on my own presentation, which was really about hyphenated careers and why students now have more time to try out different professions rather than jumping into a professional law or medical degree immediately. I wanted to really open up the possibility of at least a pure numbers and tech person entering the legal profession. 

What actually happened was that we gave our talks as scheduled but the ECG counsellor disappeared. Beyond the pep talk, there was no engagement with volunteers. 

After this event, I doubted that the ECG counsellor could have done more. He might need to get into the territory of vetting our slides and risk offending some alumni. Alternatively, he might have to organise another event and state what MOE's position is. Some matters are quite consequential to students: I did tell the students to use ChatGPT for all their homework to figure out how to do better than an AI.

On the whole, I can imagine how ECG counsellors need to deal with conflicting interests in their daily jobs :
  • In the JC versus Poly debate, how can the ECG Counsellor reconcile promoting a Polytechnic education when salary gaps are so high between Poly and University graduates?
  • Will the counsellor try to promote jobs that are prone to be outsourced or vulnerable to high-interest rates like technology and engineering roles at the expense of getting secondary school kids to aim for banking and finance instead? 
  • Will the Ministry have a different message on career counselling to different secondary schools? Will RI have a different career counselling content than my secondary school?
All this does not mean that ECG Counsellors suck. If anything, I think we need more ECG counsellors and create a path for burnt-out educators to take on this career path after a short stint, perhaps, in government HR. 
Personally, I will not trust the State to chart my career :
  • When I was in Sec 3, Poly lecturers were sent to my school to convince us to take on the Polytechnic career path. That one event sealed my determination to get into JC program. I think they need to be held accountable for leading students to a poorer employment outcome and lower salaries curing right now. 
  • In NUS, during my final year, a talk by a GIC manager to engineering students was cancelled because authorities were afraid of Engineers not joining the tech industry. It was that same government that brought in foreign talent to keep engineering salaries low half a decade later. This, in turn, led to Aljunied GRC's fall in the 2011 elections.  
I was a difficult teenager to teach when I was 15 years old. 

Instead of seeing ECG Guidance counsellors as a source of career advice, I think my younger self will openly challenge them. Smart kids should google salary statistics and minimum grades to qualify for a specific profession. 

ECG Counsellors should be openly challenged and forced to debate on their outlook on the employment landscape. 
  • If they represent MOE, they should be asked on their own opinions whether they think it's conscionable to ask students to aim lower in life. 
  • Ask them whether they'd give the same advice to their own kids.

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