There are few conversations more uncomfortable to witness than a well-meaning uncle or family friend asking a junior or senior in high school what they intend to do when they graduate. The vast majority of the answers are vague and impressive sounding: “My plan is to head off to Madison, but I’m not sure what I will be studying yet,” or, “For sure something in the medical field because I took a crime scene forensics class that I really liked.” Most of these answers involved very little research or introspection and were crafted for the benefit of the asker.
To be sure, some 17-year-olds know exactly what career they would like to pursue, and some have known from a young age. A percentage of these students have a very straight path from high school, through college or trade school, and into a successful livelihood. Even for these ‘lucky’ students, however, many of them find that the career field they knew they wanted was not everything they had hoped it would be, and they eventually decide to take a different path.
How strange that we, as a society, do very little to expose our young people to the ‘options’ that exist in the working world and yet stare at them expectantly when we ask them, “What’s your plan?”
This process can be a time of anxiety and confusion for many students, especially if we advise them to take out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans in order to figure out where they fit. In addition, a major reason that students are unmotivated in the classroom is that they have not identified what careers they might be interested in, and, as a result, are unable to connect the dots between high school academics and pursuing their career goals.
So how can we, as local communities, assist our high school students (and even our middle school students), to experience what career fields and specific positions the world has to offer? As a starting point, we need to avoid the temptation to put this urgent obligation on the shoulders of the schools. Most teachers and administrators would be very willing to be a strong collaborating partner in this effort, but as I wrote in a previous blog, the schools are already overwhelmed with mission creep, which is destroying proficiency scores. This effort should be led by the business community and parents and will ultimately provide many benefits for local community in the long run.
What might this Career Exploration program look like specifically? The first step in this process is to prioritize Career Exploration on-par with reading, math, physical fitness, and financial literacy. Career Exploration needs to be a significant part of a student’s ‘education’, even if it is not driven directly by the teachers. But what classes or activities would be sacrificed to make room for this addition? If we, as parents, have learned anything through the virtual leaning experience brought on by Covid, we are clear that there is ‘underutilized’ and in some cases ‘wasted’ time in our students’ school day.
Perhaps we can learn from some local communities who already have programs in place to give students first-hand exposure to work options. Many high schools provide hybrid school / work opportunities that allow students to learn in school in the morning and then investigate a trade by working part-time in the afternoons. The Kimberly School District has an innovative program that introduces students as young as elementary school to guest speakers from ‘the real world’, as well as comprehensive software programs that assist students in exploring their interests and abilities in the context of specific career fields.
Additionally, could we have our Sophomores and Juniors commit an afternoon a week to Career Exploration field trips that provide generic exposure to job opportunities or specific exposure to a targeted industry? What if every student was required to tour a local manufacturing facility to learn about operations, accounting, quality control, purchasing, logistics, management, and office administration? What if we provide our students with the chance to visit a local hospital or nursing home to visit with a nurse, a doctor, a lab technician, or an insurance administrator? What if we created a database of professional people who were willing to meet one-on-one for 30 minutes with a student who has narrowed his / her career search and is interested in asking specific questions to learn more? Even if this Career Exploration process only assists our young people to check the ‘No’ boxes (I’m not interested in that), how much further ahead would they be when the time came to choose a path forward.