Author, John Rindy, MPH
In my last article I suggested that we should stop asking kids, especially high school and younger, what they are going to “be” in life. I pointed out that in fact since they are going to “be” many things, it is sort of a ridiculous question. There is no way that the average 17 year old can answer the “What are you going to be?” question with any level of valid certainty. An old friend responded to that article with appreciation but with a very salient point. Paraphrasing, he made the point that with the seemingly endless amount of student debt that our young people are assuming, we need to have at least a discussion about academic majors at some point. And we are in agreement.
Before I continue, I need to point out another side to the college cost story here. One would think that not having a discussion about future careers would ultimately add to college costs because by not offering kids proper guidance, we are setting them up for frequent major changes, adding and dropping courses and falling behind in studies. In fact I propose that the opposite can also happen. I know, because it happened to me. You see, I answered the question, “John, what are you going to be?” “Band director” was my answer, to my neighbors, my friends, and my extended family. Unfortunately, within a quarter or two of classes, it became apparent that I was not cut out for the job. And yet I had told everyone, with a high degree of certainty that I was going to be a band director. I felt obligated to continue limping through my studies because of that pseudo promise. I limped and limped for three years before finally leaving the major feeling like a miserable failure. In the end, after bopping through a few more majors, I graduated after six years of college, with a two-year degree in business management. Talk about college costs and student loans! All because I was ashamed to give up on a so-called dream that I had touted would be my most certain future. So, now my readers can see why I am rather passionate about this topic.
When I encounter new students at orientation days, or during admissions days, I ask them questions, but never “What are you going to be?” I might ask “What do you plan on studying?” or “What are some of the areas of study that interest you?” These are more open-ended questions and since I am familiar with the areas our college has to offer, it can lead not only to some great conversation, but it also opens the door for me to explain why my work as a career counselor is relevant to them their first year, all the way through commencement and beyond. But what about discussions between parents and their children? Well, here is a formula that I always promote. I call it the three Ds equation:
Good Data + Deep Discussion = Great Decisions
Data: Today, we have the ability to measure a student’s interests, personality, values, skills, and leisure preferences. Want to see how it works? Go to my office’s website http://www.sru.edu/career and click on our FOCUS assessment. The access code is “rockon”. Have a youngster, at least in high school, take all five of the self-assessments and then, when they are finished with all five, click on the “See my top career choices” button below the assessments and scroll down. The tool combines the power of data from five separate assessments to suggest the areas that a student might begin to explore, in terms of their future. But it does not stop there, and no one should ever make a major or career decision based only on this type of data. There is also other data such as Bureau of Labor Statistics predictive data and other employment data that a capable career counselor can help lead you to.
Discussion: This “D” can take many forms. Here is what I say. Ask your selected college or university if they will offer one on one career counseling to students before they even arrive on campus. If they won’t then raise your eyebrows! Many career offices are not very busy at all and really have no excuse other than being short-sighted. Seriously, I have seen some career offices that only see a few students each day. Our office sees well over 2000 individual appointments each year with a team of only 3 professional staff and 4 less-than-half-time graduate assistant career counselors, yet we still make room for appointments for incoming students. School counselors are usually too overworked by their administrators (on the wrong things, like scheduling students) to be able to have these deep discussions. So, it is up to parents, friends, mentors and professional career counselors on campus to work with the students. Avoid telling your child things, instead lead with questions, explore different job descriptions at http://www.onetonline.org and ask what they like or what they do not like about each. Explore what subjects that they like, as well as what subjects they think that have been successful in. If they are stuck on a certain career, ask them to describe what they think the occupation involves every day and then check the accuracy against the bullet points in Onet. I like to show a student several jobs in a specific area, say accounting for example, and have them rate them on a scale of one to ten. Then I ask them to evaluate which descriptive bullet points they liked the most and which they liked the least in the daily activities described. Offer to find a one-day job shadow for your child and make sure they have a list of good questions to ask that day. But allow them to shadow a number of professionals in the field; not just one or two.
Here are other discussion topics related to career choice that you can have with a youngster about to finish high school:
- Do you want to work around people, or not so much, and why?
- Do you want to travel in your job (locally, regionally, nationally, or internationally) and do you know what you give up when you have a job like that?
- Do you want a job that you can work at successfully with a Bachelor’s Degree or are you willing to think about graduate school (Onet will tell you what % of the U.S. market for each occupation presently holds Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees).
- Do you want a job with really high variability each day, or a job that has many of the same, precise tasks to do over and over again?
- Do you think you will be willing to work varied shifts or long days (and define “long” for them)? Why or why not?
- Do jobs with high risk (working with the lives, kids or finances of others) interest you, or are you more inclined to lower risk jobs?
- How important are things like a big salary (define for them and put in context) and advancement opportunities (define this for them) for you. (Do not interject your viewpoint here parent. Do not!!! Your desire for a prominent position has absolutely no bearing on your child. They are not you, and may not value a large salary as you might, or vice versa.)
There are many other questions, but I will stop there. The point is, only the combination of data, plus discussion will result in great decisions. Lastly, and I believe I started to make the point above, I should point out that everyone’s happiness pie recipe is different. As you discuss, you, the parent should be talking about 10-20% of the time and the child should be talking the rest of the time. Your job is to ask questions and then listen. Never use the words, “I believe”, “I feel”, “I think”, “But I say” or anything that inserts your influence into the discussion. Your kid might not be interested in a huge salary – maybe they want to consider social work. Your kid might not be interested in a highly visible and prominent occupation – perhaps they would prefer to serve as a mental health counselor. You kid might express interest in an occupation that will require for them to move away from home – you need to get over it. It is their life.
In any case, ask, listen, and lead them to new experiences and new ideas about the world of work. In the end, they will learn to make more informed decisions in everything they do.
It’s your future (and theirs). Take charge (and teach them to take charge, responsibly)!