How soon should kids get on a career track?

“Hey, this would make a good show for Midmorning,” I hollered over the cubicle walls the other day while I was writing this post last week about the Governor’s Workforce Development Council proposal to the Legislature to require students to develop a plan for their future careers as early as the ninth grade. Some people say it’s not early enough; others say it pigeon-hole’s kids into a career track.

So Midmorning will take the first 45 minutes of the first hour of the show this morning to discuss the topic.

I’ll be in the studio live-blogging the program with Jim Bierma, lead counselor of Minneapolis public schools; Randall Hansen, founder of Quintessential Careers, a career development Web site; and Marc Scheer, researcher, educational consultant, and career counselor with a Ph.D. in counseling psychology. His book is called “No Sucker Left Behind: Avoiding the Great College Rip-off.”

None of them is on the Council but we’ll be talking about the role of schools and the pros and cons of this idea. That’s where you come in. Post your thoughts in the comments section below now or during the show and I’ll pull the best ones out to read on the air and ask the guests to address.

9:03 a.m. – We’re about ready to go. Jim is describing his work with the Minneapolis Public Schools. We’ve got some good comments that we can insert into the show if we get a chance. Keep them coming.

9:07 a.m. - Recommended reading: Career and college planning needs of 9th graders.

9:10 a.m. – Jim Bierma says by around 10th grade, students have more realistic plans. But if a student says he wants to be an NBA basketball player, “we go with that.” We never tell them they can’t, he says, but they emphasize that college will be necessary for that. He favors the career track, saying it helps students become more motivated.

9:12 a.m. – Randall Hansen says the #1 answer of students when asked what they want to do it “I don’t want to work behind a desk all day.” He says the governor’s proposal may be geared to “cost saving.” “It just limits people, especially so early to say ‘oh, you’re on a community college track, if your grades improve we can review that.’ It limits the students’ view of what’s possible.”

9:15 a.m. – Bierma says they’re not putting kids on a community college track. He says students can change their career plan at any time. He says surveys of parents and students shows support for career plans (tracks).

My question: What if a student doesn’t have a plan for a career at the 9th grade. Does this push them to decide something and is that good or bad?

9:18 a.m. – Matt in Luverne, a high school senior calls. Says he had tons of ideas of what to do and it was good to see options. But he didn’t like the idea of making kids write down what they might want to do. “It puts undue stress” on the kids.

9:19 a.m. – John from Bloomington says this is the German model of education. He says students are put on a trade track or an education track. He says it reduces student anxiety.

9:24 a.m. – Marc Scheer says he falls out on the side of being concerned about students’ financial futures. The current generation of students graduating are Generation Debt. They’re receiving lower salaries than they expect. He’d like to see consideration of future salaries become a bigger part of the picture.

Tangent time As you know, I’ve been talking to kids on campus for the last few weeks, asking them where their “passion” for the choice of their direction comes from. In interviews with 60+ kids so far, I haven’t met anyone who says it came from anything that happened in high school.

9:28 a.m. - A parent of a 9th grader calls and says she fears that instead of having a variety of resources available to help kids make decisions, what we’ll have is a tracking where people were told at an early age, you should do this or you should do that. She also says there aren’t enough counselors in schools, a fact also brought up by several people in the comments section below.

Jim says Minnesota is last in the nation for school counselors per student. “We’re also optimistic that we do a lot of things in classrooms. School counselors are all about getting girls in science and math and we do not tell people, ‘you cannot do this.’”

9:38 a.m. – Andrew, a high school student, wants to get into the performing arts and he says it’s hard to find good information. What’s available for him, he asks? Jim says he would show him Web sites for colleges that have strong acting programs.

Is that a decision Andrew could’ve made in 9th grade? Yes, he says.

9:40 a.m. – A caller says she would’ve “sold herself short” if she had made decisions in the 9th grade. She also wonders why Minnesota would move forward with this plan without a foundation in place to support it?

Marc says there’s a danger students could get locked into something rigid at an early age. “No one wants a 13 or 14 year old to make all their life decisions, but at the same time we need more of a career emphasis in high school.”

Jim says school counselors are promoting a program that doesn’t lock students into anything.

9:42 a.m. – I’m having a flashback to the mid-90s when there was a worker shortage in Minnesota and businesses were concerned that they wouldn’t have enough well-trained workers. It led to efforts to increase emphasis on career tracks in high schools, and caused a debate on what schools are for: to provide “enlightenment” or to make workers for businesses?


9:50 a.m. – Dr. Hansen, one of the guests earlier in the hour, has posted this follow-up in the comments section.


Hi. One thing I wanted to follow-up on from the show this morning is the importance of something Jim said… that I think it is important to tie interests to possible careers and jobs — so high school students can then do the research themselves and find out information about the type of work, the pay, the values, the job outlook, and so forth about each type of career.

Too often students — in high school or college — choose a major, say philosophy — as Jim mentioned — and proceed with no clue as to the kinds of jobs they could get with that major… or they assume they will just continue on to graduate school.

We have a section on QuintCareers.com that we call real jobs for real majors — where students can find a list of jobs for just about any type of college major.

Thanks again for having me on the show.

  • Laura Askelin

    I don’t think it is a good idea to require 9th graders to choose a specific career path. I see the need to help them start seeing the future. But to require them to have a specific plan will only trap them in that plan.

    Did you ever see the cartoon Futurama? Citizens are analyzed for their particular suitability for a career path then are implanted with an electronic device which denotes which job someone is allowed to do. That’s where I see the Governors plan going.

  • MR

    This is basically a repeat of what I posted to the original article:

    Who will provide these students with guidance and assistance? Guidance counselors? They’re already massively overworked. Choosing a career path is a big deal, and ninth graders are all of 14 or 15. That’s a big decision to be making at that age, and they’ll need some help.

  • boB from WA

    I happen to agree with the above comments. Who is to determine what is best when these young adults are still trying to figure out their own identity. One other concern comes to mind: what about career changing at some point down the road? Will there be guidance? Is the path selected permanent? I raise this as I didn’t figure out what really drives me until I was 50.

  • Joanna

    I’ll try to give this a listen from work. I already commented on your original post with my objections to the idea, as a parent and a college educator. Until there is more real meaningful support for kids in the schools, tracking them is usually a way to reinforce existing class and other social divides, and I have heard way too many stories from students about being discouraged from their dreams because they were poor, girls, not white, or somehow did not fit some adult’s idea of what they should do.

  • Tom

    A combination of work and school would be good.

    Best case scenerio would be 4 to 5 hours in high school and 2 hours in a work environment seeing how the skills in work translate into work. It would also give them the concept of pay associated with work.

    If students could earn as they learn, it may reduce the dropout rate and give the students a more realistic view of work.

    Best case we could emulate vocational track of europe where students could leave highschool with a base level skill and two years of real part time work experience in a field among role models before a student decided college or vocation school was their ultimate desire.

  • Joanna

    Bierma is describing good counseling, not mandated tracking.

  • Don V.

    In recent years there is good evidence that the frontal lobes (area where consequenses of decisions are assesed) of the brain, on average, do not fully develope until age 26! How is it anyone should expect kids to have the foresight to decide a career at age 14?

  • http://tannercurl.blogspot.com Tanner Curl

    I went to Coe College (small liberal arts college in Cedar Rapids, IA), and the president there was found of saying, “Coe trains you for nothing, but prepares you for everything.” We were also told that “a liberal arts education doesn’t teach you what to think, it teaches you how to think.”

    When I heard the latter statement, my reaction was something like, “WHAT?!?! I like the way I think, thank you very much!”

    But now it makes sense. At the time, I thought I knew where I was going and what I was going to do. Give me some knowledge, a degree, and send me out the door.

    I was wrong. I needed to explore more. I needed to step outside of myself and my experiences to think more about who I was and where I was in the world. That’s not a singular happening. It’s something we all should do throughout our lives.

    Ultimately, that’s what the “liberal” in liberal arts means. It’s not a political ideology, it’s a freeing. Like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, we need to rise above the sometimes automated notions we have of society and ourselves. It’s no coincidence the liberal, library, and liberty share a common root.

    And it’s also the case that my liberal arts education wasn’t just sitting around discussing existentialism and Jane Austen (although those discussions were fun). I did learn specific, practical skills (even in my English major classes!). I learned how to synthesize information and different ways to communicate ideas. I learned how to modify my communication style to fit different audiences. I learned how to analyze texts. No matter what career I end up doing (maybe one that doesn’t even exist right now), I will be surprised if these skills aren’t useful.

    Bob, even if you thought you wanted to be a journalist in ninth grade, did you ever think your primary job would be to blog for a news organization? (Ninth grade Bob Collins: “What’s a blog?”)

  • Mary

    Why would it be different if a 9th grader says he wants to be a basketball player or an astronaut. We’d probably be happy he/she wants to be an astronaut and not a basketball player. Both options have very low probabilities, although it is probably harder to become an astronaut. So why is it so bad to want to be a basketball player?

  • http://evmce@yahoo.com Ellen

    When I was in school (50s), tracking started in Jr. High, 7th grade. We were in “divisions,” 7-A down to 7-whatever. There wasn’t much difference in courses in 7th grade, but by 8th grade the upper divisions were starting Latin (yes, really) and what would now be called pre-algebra. The lowest tracks were taking extra shop, “shop math,” etc. Homerooms, however, were homogeneous.

    Through Jr. High we had a weekly “guidance class,” taught by guidance counselors, in which we learned about all sorts of careers. In 9th grade, we wrote an in-depth paper about the career we thought we wanted then.

    In High School, instead of divisions we had tracks: college, business/commercial, home ec and shop. We had meetings with the guidance counselors at the HS to determine which we wanted, though I’m sure there was a LOT of “guiding.” I’m not sure what the response would have been if a “college track” candidate, with good grades from division 9A or 9B, had asked to be in the commercial track. Or if a kid from a lower division wanted to try college.

    The plus side: courses focused on interest and perceived ability. The down side: It was, I believe, much easier to move down the tracks than to move up. And there were a lot more jobs in those days that did not require any post-secondary education.

    Bottom line, I don’t think it’s a bad idea, so long as there is real guidance involved in the choices, and movement is possible between the tracks.

  • Lisa

    Please address the idea that guidance counselors do not have nearly enough time to do their current jobs. How on earth is this going to be done well? All these ‘discussions’ about learning styles and interests are great, but the current staffing at schools will never allow this to happen with 500+ kids in a class with 2 counselors?

  • Scott

    In 9th grade I didn’t know how many different types of jobs were available nor did people see many of the jobs that would be availabe. The computer jobs included “programmer.” Now there are so many sub-types within the industry that no one ever imagined that would be available 8 years down the road. (assuming 3 years of High School and 4 years of college)

  • Joel

    I for one had no idea what I wanted to do professionally when I was in 9th grade. Through most of my H.S. years I thought for a time I wanted to be a carpenter, but then at about the last minute I changed my mind to architecture. Then after the first semester of college, I changed to Journalism with a focus in advertising. I eventually found my way into video production and event staging…

    Even as adults, interests change.

    Some kids are sent to Magnet Schools well before high school.

  • Don

    It’s essential to give kids realistic perspective on their strengths to help them make informed choices for course emphasis in relation to their futures. I was fortunate to have taken Kuder Vocational Preference Tests during my junior high school year (1968). It confirmed an adeptness in science that enabled me to exploit those strengths throughout my working life. The earlier we give kids meaningful context for the work they do in school, the better.

    BTW: I have twins heading into ninth grade next year. Their school (Edina) is actively working to help students think constructively about what they wish to do. I support the concepts advanced during today’s program.

  • bigalmn

    How about combining some of the admin tasks between districts so that more counselors and teachers are available in local schools.

    Lets have instead of staff that evaluates teaching tools in each district, how about 2 or 3 statewide and put those people back on the front line counseling and teaching.

  • Tyler Suter

    Many of the students that I graduated from high school with went to college only to drop out; sometimes more than once – and I think there should be a way to evaluate whether college is suitable for a student as well as a way to reinforce the fact that being a mechanic is as admirable as being a doctor. We need to dissolve this stigma relating to the disparity between various occupations and associated social status.

  • Rosie

    As a 27 year old considering going back to school for a Masters of Liberal Arts because my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree was too specialized, the idea of honing in on a career path at 15 years old is stunning.

  • MT

    We seem to be entering a period in our history in which everything is reassessed. Work will change fundamentally. There were so many phony jobs created over the past 20 or 30 years, jobs with titles like Project Manager and Marketing Analyst. Many of these jobs will go away. There may be a huge push towards basic survival – ensuring the unimpeded flow of food, ensuring that energy and fuel are efficiently conveyed, keeping crime and sickness at bay, etc. Jobs in these areas will probably be in demand in the coming years.

  • http://www.quintcareers.com/ Dr. Randall Hansen

    Hi. One thing I wanted to follow-up on from the show this morning is the importance of something Jim said… that I think it is important to tie interests to possible careers and jobs — so high school students can then do the research themselves and find out information about the type of work, the pay, the values, the job outlook, and so forth about each type of career.

    Too often students — in high school or college — choose a major, say philosophy — as Jim mentioned — and proceed with no clue as to the kinds of jobs they could get with that major… or they assume they will just continue on to graduate school.

    We have a section on QuintCareers.com that we call real jobs for real majors — where students can find a list of jobs for just about any type of college major. The URL is: http://www.quintcareers.com/majors/

    Thanks again for having me on the show.

  • Don V.

    There is an old addage: if you love what you do, you’ll never “work” a day in your life! Rare is the child who knows what he/she loves to do.

  • Joshua

    Pop-culture can have some insight on this conversation:

    The following is part of the movie script that sums up how many kids will see this exercise of choosing a career in the 9th grade. I think it shows 3 distinct views from 3 distinct types of personalities.

    [Peter, Michael, and Samir are chatting as they hang around the printer]

    Peter Gibbons: Our high school guidance counselor used to ask us what you’d do if you had a million dollars and you didn’t have to work. And invariably what you’d say was supposed to be your career. So, if you wanted to fix old cars then you’re supposed to be an auto mechanic.

    Samir: So what did you say?

    Peter Gibbons: I never had an answer. I guess that’s why I’m working at Initech.

    Michael Bolton: No, you’re working at Initech because that question is bull….to begin with. If everyone listened to her, there’d be no janitors, because no one would clean {toilets} up if they had a million dollars.

    Samir: You know what I would do if I had a million dollars? I would invest half of it in low risk mutual funds and then take the other half over to my friend Asadulah who works in securities…

    Michael Bolton: Samir, you’re missing the point. The point of the exercise is that you’re supposed to figure out what you would want to do if…

    [printer starts beeping]

    Michael Bolton: “PC Load Letter”? What the….does that mean?

  • Lisa in St. Paul

    My family spent 5 years in the Netherlands, during the time I was in middle and high school. I have had the experience of following a particular track and am writing to comment on my experience. At the time I felt it gave my studies a focus; education with the goal of attending college (that was the track I was in). Looking back I still feel that it was beneficial, not restrictive. The track allowed flexibility to take a variety of classes while focusing on classes of particular interest. For students who were in a different track, there was the possibility to move into the desired track after having met the criteria to move into the desired track. In general, I think the tracking system is a good one. My experience with it was good and I found that once in college I could still make changes as desired. I believe the tracking system would help a student be more conscious of what their interests and strengths are.

  • Christel

    I grew up in Germany, received my Master’s degrees in Germany, my doctoral degree in the US and now teach at a university in MN.

    In Germany students are tracked after 4th grade. The tracking is based on your academic achievements and interests, and not on job interests. Looking at my siblings, friends, nieces and nephews, I have to say that this tracking is very successful. I never felt locked in and always felt that the whole world of job opportunity was available to me.

    However, it has to be made sure that despite the tracking some flexibility for moving between tracks is available. This was the case for some friends who very successfully moved between tracks once they had found their niche.

    When asked, which school system I would prefer for my children, I without hesitation would pick the German system.

  • John Reinschmidt

    I find it very disheartening that college is framed in most of these discussions as fundamentally a source of vocational education (i.e. education intended specifically to prepare one for finding a job in a particular “field”). As a graduate of St. Olaf College, I believe strongly in the liberal arts model. College and university should expose one to a vast array of ideas, concepts, thoughts, that do not necessarily prepare one for a job hunt in a “field”. College should liberate (whence the name “liberal” arts) one from the narrow viewpoint, the parochial perspective, yes even the ignorance that comes from starting life with just one circumscribed vantage on life and the world. Having acquired broader perspectives, basic skills in writing, critical reading and thinking, problem-solving, conceptual analysis, etc., one is admirably equipped to pursue any number of careers that can provide both financial security and the satisfaction of finding a metier that is meaningful and fulfilling.

  • Josh in Mpls

    We need to expect more from our students. Give them purpose to their studies. Focus them on a goal. These are things they will be doing the rest of their life if they want to be successful.

    In my own life and in a lot of my friends in school (geeks and burnouts). Purpose and application of our education was a hard concept to understand. Tutor a kid sometime and I guarantee you will be asked the question, “When am I ever going to need to know this?” The answer to that question should be easy, but isn’t because it depends on what the kid wants to do.

    Most of us our so overwhelmed by our own life decisions that we don’t want to burden a 9th grader with that thought process. They should just look forward to driving and losing their virginity. Living every moment for us, the lame, depressed adult world.

    Maybe we wouldn’t have so many adolescent 30 year olds who live to play video games, checked out of society, if we expected them to do something with their life from the beginning of adulthood. Yes, 14 years old.

    rant over.

  • Paul

    The problem with 9th graders selecting a career is that it’s completely irrational for several reasons. First, no one, especially a ninth grader knows what the job market is going to look like in 3-10 years, and even if you did, it changes (think IT). Second, the instruments used to determine career interest and compatibility are very crude and unreliable. A snapshot of a ninth graders current interests, skills, and abilities should never be used to determine that kids future potential or abilities for soooo many reasons.

    No one knows what job markets or economies will look like for sure by the time a ninth grader graduates from high school or college. Nor can anyone reliably predict successful career path for any particular night grader. What we do know is that people who well educated, meaning they can they can think critically, know how to learn, and have a broad base of basic knowledge and intellectual skills, are better prepared to find their way in the world. We all have to live our own lives, what we can do for ninth graders is try to give them the tools they need and then let them live.

  • Amanda

    I went to Centennial High School in Circle Pines MN and graduated in 2001. We had to take a career type class in 9th grade. We took personality assessments and the likes to figure out what we might like to do when we were grown up. I think mine suggested astronaut, firefighter, secretary, vet… you know. All fairly useless. I grew up to be a Group Life and Disability Underwriter.

    The point is to get kids thinking about life after high school. College, the workforce, supporting themselves and or a family. You have to teach kids about what comes next and how to be read even if they don’t know what to do. For some kids, 9th grade might be too late.

  • Elizabeth T

    I told my councilor in 9th grad (1979) that I wanted to be a doctor. He never asked why. and I’m fairly certain he wouldn’t have said “you should also consider public health, which will include these goals.”

    I’m graduating from U of M’s School of Public Health in December. I sincerely wish someone had pointed out this field to me much earlier. Medicine was just not for me, and I wrote off pursuing my dreams, which I thought required an MD. I’m no longer in a position to do what I really wanted when I was 14 (although I still want it).

    btw …

    Community colleges are falsely painted as being “for losers who can’t get admitted to a big/elite university”. I will recommend my kids go to a community college for a year or so. Basic classes are the same, it’s far cheaper, and can provide an exposure to things other than a strictly academic approach to a subject.

    There is also a disconnect between matching a child’s desire (and they are still children) with a career. Academic ability needs to be considered – not to limit her, but to ensure she is provided with the support to be able to meet those needs.

  • Bob Collins

    //Community colleges are falsely painted as being “for losers who can’t get admitted to a big/elite university

    Not by me. I’m hoping one benefit of the News Cut on Campus tour is it better illuminates the people who are there.

    I have been surprised also about the number of programs at community colleges in Minnesota that are so specific — and so hard to find elsewhere — that people are coming from out of state to attend them.

    If nothing else comes out of that project, I hope it’s this: there’s more to public higher ed in Minnesota than the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. And that the U of M doesn’t have the market cornered on smart, energetic, and motivated students. Not by a long shot.