At 23, Chelsea Taylor had three unfinished degrees, $30,000 in student debt, and no idea what she wanted to do with her life.
"I was feeling really, really lost at that stage and my brother recently had seen an ad on TV. Metro [Trains Melbourne] was looking to hire more women," Ms Taylor said.
"He was like, 'You could do that', and I was like, 'Sure okay, what have I got to lose?'"
Ms Taylor has been a train driver for five years now and loves it.
She said she wished she had discovered it sooner.
"I wish my school and the adults in my life didn't present non-university careers as lesser or fall-back options, so I wouldn't have felt so pressured to keep restarting degrees," Ms Taylor said.
"I was getting grades good enough to get into university, [so] that's why I was going to go.
"That was my only option really, there was nothing else … given to me."
Ms Taylor said it took her a long time to shake the notion that if she did not attend university she would be "wasting an opportunity".
Reach for the ATARs
Research by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) in 2022 showed study pathways information for high school students was "significantly skewed towards university study, and students are uninformed about alternative pathways into post-secondary education".
Curtin University Associate Professor Jane Coffey, who helped lead the study, said the research from surveys showed the extent of career advice for students was "pretty much subject selection".
"And your subject selection was based on your grades, rather than your interests," she said.
"We had a story in the report about a young student who was actually quite interested in doing maths, was looking at the sciences.
"But the teachers looked at the scores and said ... 'You're not up for it' and [they] were streamed into VET courses that that particular student wasn't interested in doing."
Another student had reported the opposite problem – they had great grades in physics and chemistry, but no interest in studying science.
"They were pushed into the ATAR subjects and six months through year 11 just went, 'you know what, I can't do this' and it was quite stressful for the student and they dropped out," Ms Coffey said.
"Which to me is just devastating."
She said career advice also varied across schools depending on their socio-economic status (SES), with the report finding students from low SES backgrounds more likely to receive information on non-professional pathways.
"If they go to a private or elite school or a school that's well resourced, then they're generally getting some not-bad advice from careers advisers who have the time and have the knowledge to provide advice on different pathways," she said.
"However, even with those schools we find that it's pretty much concentrated on ATAR [Australian Tertiary Admission Rank], and if you're not ATAR they're pushing you to VET pathways."
But she said in low socio-economic or rural areas, a careers advisory position was generally left to a "really dedicated teacher who's either put their hand up or been volunteered".
"So what we've found in this study is they're generally struggling because they're trying to fit it in with their day job because they don't have the knowledge, they don't have the resources and it's actually a really complex minefield and each state is different as to the different pathways you have to tertiary education to university or to TAFE or some other mode of study," she said.
Canberra's Marist College careers adviser Leigh Southwell said while advisers give students information about alternative pathways when suitable, it was difficult to provide personal advice to hundreds of students, and they sometimes fell behind given "the sheer of information about pathways, options and courses".
"It's almost like a firehose of information we have to absorb and then disseminate out," she said.
"It's pretty much an impossible task."
She said there was often only one adviser per school – and that it was sometimes a teacher who had to juggle the role on top of their full-time workload.
"The demands of that one person to know the individual needs and pathways of 500 or 1000 students is really, really difficult," she said.
Students suffer, employers suffer
Industries have grown increasingly concerned about outdated career advice that does not reflect evolving workforce needs.
The Tech Council of Australia said one in two Australian students had never been taught about digital careers.
But head of corporate communications at Australian graphic design platform, Canva, Lachlan Andrews said businesses were also responsible for encouraging more diverse pathways into work.
Canva removed degree requirements from most roles a few years ago.
"We did that intentionally, knowing that having diversity of experiences, perspectives and backgrounds actually just adds so much value," Mr Andrews said.
Mr Andrews left school in year 10. Now at 22, he is head of his department.
Mr Andrews said he was invited at one point to study public communications at university, but he left after a semester.
"The type of stuff they were teaching was so different to the actual job," he said.
"Looking back, absolutely no regrets."
However, Professor Andrew Norton, an expert in higher education systems at Australian National University, said pursuing university and TAFE could be more appealing in the long term.
"On average, people who have a degree earn more than [people] with a vocational or year 12 only," Mr Norton said.
"For young men … their vocational options tend to have better pay than the vocational options of women."
Ms Coffey said students reported wanting more information on different pathways to tertiary education, alternatives to ATAR, and the future of work.
"If you're 16, 17 years old it's very hard to come up with an answer about what you want to do with the rest of your life," she said.
"We know with the future of work, by 2030, a lot of careers that these young people will be going into haven't even been created yet. They haven't been invented.
"Because things are changing so considerably with artificial intelligence and technology. So how do they plan for a vocation that hasn't even been invented yet?"
Bridging the work and school divide
Camberwell Girls Grammar School has been rethinking its approach to career advice.
The private school in Melbourne's east has designed an upskill program to give students practical work skills and insights into a range of industries, with a focus on technology.
But principal Debbie Dunwoody believes the national curriculum has not made change easy.
"We work within a fairly conservative framework that's very reliant on ATAR scores," she said.
"But we don't believe that that's enough for young people."
The school has also supported students to pursue work and "side-hustles", as studies have shown teenagers who combine full-time study with part-time work show improved outcomes in the adult job market.
The federal government's recent employment white paper acknowledges the need for better career advice for school leavers.
But the Department of Education said it was up to state and territory authorities to make decisions around career advice in schools, including whether careers advisers should be mandatory in high schools.
Ms Coffey said a national approach to information was essential to "demystify" and "standardise" the process of accessing tertiary education.
"One of the things we're recommending is a national standard, because this is pretty hard for teachers to navigate the way it's changing all the time and the different pathways a student can access tertiary education," she said.
"It's not all about ATAR."
She also wants to see career advice "embedded" into school curriculums that reflect the future of work.
"We're still stuck in a bit of a time-warp about the way jobs did look when maybe my parents went through, but it looks very, very different now.
"And I think our education system needs to now catch up."