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The disconnect between career aspirations and the labour market

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Career aspirations start from an early age, as do biases and misconceptions…

When primary and intermediate school students across New Zealand were asked to draw a picture of their dream job¹, a study found that:

  • More than 50% of students aspire to one of just nine most popular jobs (see graph) - with sportsperson being the most popular choice by far.

  • Boys were 4x more likely than girls to aspire to be an engineer

  • Girls were 14x more likely than boys to aspire to be a beauty therapist, make-up artist, hairdresser, or barber

  • Children at lower decile schools were less likely than children in higher decile schools to aspire to careers in science, technology, engineering, and maths.

Findings from Drawing the Future study¹

At the recent MOTAT STEM Fair, the STEM Alliance team hosted an interactive display to highlight the importance of making STEM careers visible to all tamariki and starting early conversations about possible career pathways.

We challenged STEM Fair participants to look at different pictures, identify the career and sort them into ‘STEM’ or ‘non-STEM’ jobs. This simple task created lots of debate for kids and adults alike! Some of the conversations we heard are highlighted below:

“Is that person a cashier or a banker or accountant?"

"She could be all three. They need to know maths to deal with money.”

“Does the firefighter need to know science?"

"Yes.. They need to know how different fires are started and the best way to put them out.”

The activity had no right or wrong answers, but everyone walked away with a greater appreciation of the variety of jobs available and how important STEM skills are for many different facets of life.

STEM skills are and will always be needed in the labour market

Student aspirations sometimes do not line up with labour demands¹. Between 2011 – 2021, 46% of new jobs created in Auckland were in a STEM-related industry (construction & infrastructure, professional, scientific & technical services, and healthcare and social assistance)². STEM-related jobs account for nearly 40% of all current jobs in Auckland².

The number of jobs that require STEM skills is projected to continue to increase in the future – but how are our students finding out about these jobs?

Role models shift biases and misconceptions

“No-one can choose what they don’t know." – Robyn Bailey and Lynette Reid, Career Development Association of New Zealand¹.

To support tamariki to understand the wide range of career pathways available to them, it is important that they are exposed to a range of people and experiences. Students have reported aspiring to a job because they knew someone with that career - family members are often the biggest influence¹. The media can also be a big influence with children reporting they aspired to a role because they know someone famous or saw it on TV or in a movie¹.

At the STEM Fair, we asked participants to guess whether males or females make up a greater percentage of students or professionals in different industries.

Many participants were surprised to learn that more women are enrolled in STEM-related tertiary courses, yet they are under-represented in STEM employment. This highlights the 'leaky pipeline' issue where we are losing diversity as people progress through their careers.

Another surprise was that 80% of people working in the healthcare & social assistance industry are female³. This is heavily skewed by the large proportion of women in nursing and residential care jobs. Meanwhile, it was no surprise at all to our participants that the construction field is significantly more male-dominated³.

New Zealand employment data by gender and industry³

Changing these stereotypes requires increasing exposure to different role models from an early age and addressing the systemic inequities and biases associated with different STEM careers.

"My child is only 6 and as soon as they started school, their perception of what's 'for girls' and 'for boys' changed, it was quite shocking. They must learn it from other kids or what they see in the classroom." - parent at STEM Fair.

The data, as well as our experience at STEM fair, clearly shows more work needs to be done to make STEM career pathways inclusive and aspirational for all students.


¹Tertiary Education Commission, Drawing the Future Report. February 2020.

²Infometrics Regional Economic Profile – Auckland. Retrieved 24 October 2022.

³Stats NZ, Jobs in Industry by gender, August 2022. Retrieved 24 October 2022.


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