Choosing your career path

I’ll be on All Things Considered tonight with Tom Crann, talking about what I’ve learned so far during the News Cut on Campus “tour.” My theme this evening will be the number of people who wish they’d made different choices when choosing a career path in high school, and the story of one person who wishes her parents had told her she was making a mistake.

(Update: Here’s the dance mix — )

That’s why I’ve taken note today of an idea being considered at the Capitol on the subject of career paths: Requiring students to have one.

On Tuesday, a House committee heard recommendations from the Governor’s Workforce Development Council, one of which would require high school students to develop a plan for their future careers as early as the ninth grade.

According to the Legislature’s Session Daily report, “Executive Director Brenda Norman presented the recommendation that every Minnesota student, from ninth grade on, should have an annually reviewed plan to guide them down an educational and occupational path of their own choosing.”

There are, of course, two schools of thought on this:

Rep. Steve Gottwalt said he was concerned about adopting a European-style plan. “I get awfully concerned when we’re talking about mandating things on ninth-graders and graduates in high school…The fact that we might require them to start building a career path too early or too arbitrarily is a bit of a concern.”

“Ninth grade, to me, is almost too late to be thinking about where they want to be going,” countered Rep. Jeanne Poppe.

This question sent me into the Wayback Machine to my youth, which — for the record — was not in Europe. We had two tracks in high school and kids were separated in 10th grade — the college track vs. the “business” track.

As a member of the esteemed college track, I was told by my guidance counselor that I would be an engineer, because that’s where the jobs were in the early ’70s, especially in my declining New England milltown. So he loaded me up with a planned schedule that included trigonometry and physics and a whole host of classes for smart people that I had no hope of passing or any interest in attending. Back then, however, I often did as I was told.

That afternoon I showed my mother my planned schedule and her jaw dropped.

“I thought you wanted to be a journalist,” she said.

It was a forehead-slap moment. “Oh… right,” I said. “I forgot.”

It provides a good reminder that lives are changed by parents who’ll slap you on the side of the head and tell you when you’re being stupid.

And that brings us to the question for discussion. Is your career path a matter of discussion between a student and parents only or should the law require you to choose a career path by a certain point?

  • Chad

    The problem is that 9th graders can’t consent. Legally or cognitively, they don’t have the ability to decide. Nobody has the right to tell them what career trajectory to take because they can’t say no. Because they can’t say no, making them choose would be unconstitutional.

    (not to mention that, as a family therapist, I know the interpersonal process of forcing a child into a career would have far-reaching, deliterious effects on their relational functioning later on in life). IMO

  • “Ninth grade, to me, is almost too late to be thinking about where they want to be going”

    I call shenanigans!

    I wonder how many 9th graders will think “Hey I should be an electrician ” or plumber, or accountant, for that matter?

    The best career advice I received was to choose a career where the work is difficult and boring as they tend to have less interest from the masses and higher pay.

    I’ve found the advice to be true.

  • brian

    While I generally think we start pressuring kids too early, I don’t think I would have a problem with a mandated plan as long as it was easy for students to stray from it. It would require more and better trained school councilors though (so your experience hopefully wouldn’t happen much Bob) which seems unlikely to be funded given the current budget climate. Without more support to help students make the plans I think mandating them would be pointless.

  • Tonya

    Considering most people I know are always looking for 1) better pay, 2) less hours for the same pay, or 3) just something different than what they’ve already experienced, I don’t think mandating career paths would aleviate this problem, even if we had proper counseling and oversight of any programs that would be created.

  • Fred

    The part that is not apparent with the career path starting in the ninth grade is they have to start making that decision in the eighth grade. When I worked in the aviation magnet school at Washburn High School in Minneapolis, the informational tour of the middle schools would start early in the fall. The choice of magnet program and the high school you would attend needed to be done early in the second semester. If the child was interested in engineering it was necessary because the series of math classes needed to start right a way in the ninth grade. In my own world of aviation, it allowed the student time to see if any career in aerospace was a fit. I had too many friends who spent many dollars of student loans in college on flight lessons only to decide that flying was not the career they wanted. Some time thinking about this in high school might have precluded that. Like you said in your blog, it really helps to have parents who are looking after their children. From my experience in the world of high school education, that is not always the case.

  • bigalmn

    Yes, you should choose a path, but you need to have the right to change it. Why should you choose a path?

    If a student does not prep down a certain path they will need to suffer significant pain when they get to higher education in today’s world. Talk with the staff at any “junior college” campus in the state and see how many students are taking remedial courses because they did not choose a path.

    Below is a quote from this website:

    The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that 20 percent of all students attending four-year public schools take at least one remedial course. In addition to remedial courses, colleges also offer a large array of introductory courses designed to prepare students for the heavier, more demanding upper-level college work. This past fall Michigan State and Western Michigan universities together had more than 5,700 students enrolled in what can be considered either remedial or introductory math and English courses. While not particularly resource intensive, these courses are very costly to students, ranging from $750 to $1,300 for a three-credit hour course.

    If the average class costs $1,000 that is $5,700,000 this small group of students is paying for education that should have likely been done in High School.

    The St. Paul School district has a program – funded largely by the Gates Foundation – AVID.

    The program provides guidance for the future, but to take advantage of the guidance you need to select an ultimate goal.

    I know change happens, I change my college major at least three times, but if you don’t start out somewhere you have a much hard time getting anywhere.

  • LJ

    When I was in 9th grade, we had to research a possible career choice and do a report on it. I ended up choosing that same career as my real career choice….and it was partly due to the assignment. I’m very happy with what I chose, too. In fact, I love it.

    My husband didn’t get any sort of “career talk” when he was in high school – from teachers/counselors or his parents. And now he’s still wondering what he wants to do with his life.

    So I’m all for at least mandating 9th graders to think about their careers. Obviously they don’t have to make their final choice in 9th grade. But they should start researching.

  • Chad

    But who decides they HAVE to choose? I understand that getting on the trajectory early helps, but it’s not a disaster if they wait. Our society is grossly mastery-centric and value the result more than the process. Because of this, we’ve raised a crop of kids that can’t stand ambiguity or tolerate variance. How we are with the CHILDREN is how they will be with themselves later in life. Sure we can offer them some important content (career knowledge) but at the cost of what integral interpersonal processes?

  • krj

    A couple quick thoughts here:

    Shouldn’t schools assist in learning a wide range of topics without directing a student to items they do and don’t need to know?

    How are new/developing careers handled in a determined career path scenario? (Lots of cutting edge jobs do not exist 3-4 years before a student leaves high school)

  • bsimon

    I think their intentions are good, but getting the state involved is a bit discomforting. I think it is important to get kids to start thinking about what their career options are, particularly in terms of what it takes to accomplish basic things like have money to eat and move out of mom & dad’s.

    If the intention is to ‘lock-in’ students to a career track, I can’t express strongly enough how idiotic such an idea would be. The rate of change in some areas of the workforce is so rapid right now that in the span of a 4 year college tenure new fields of work open, while others (formerly considered stable) close.

  • Bob Collins

    //Shouldn’t schools assist in learning a wide range of topics without directing a student to items they do and don’t need to know?

    That’s really the critical question that surfaced about 12 years ago, as I recall. Is the role of education to prepare people for a job? Or is it to provide intellectual enrichment.

    I can remember a series we put together back then (I was the editor on it) that looked at the tension between education interests and the business community that needed people to fill jobs.

    I’m reminded of the observations of this young man.

    On the other hand, culturally and sociologically, are young people today imbued by their parents with an appreciation for learning things just because learning something for its own sake is valuable?

  • MR

    Who will be assisting these students in making that decision? Most high-school counseling offices are already massively understaffed (and in some cases almost entirely run by parent volunteers).

    I remember that in my high school, last names M-Z got one counselor, A-L got the other. That meant that I was literally one of 1000 students that the counselor had to work with. To say that I got much “Guidance” would be a vast overstatement. He did as well as he could with the time he had, but there was simply a very small amount that he could do.

  • Bob Collins

    I used to read Ann Landers when I was growing up, MR, and the answer to all of life’s big issues from her was always, “go talk to your guidance counselor.”

    That always made me burst out laughing.

  • Anna

    I would also be one to steer clear of a mandated program where you had to follow a particular path based on choices you make at the age of 15 – with our without help from an overburdened school counselor (I think I met with mine exactly once during my years in high school, and it was a vague talk about college options).

    I think it is easy to get caught up in teaching kids (or adults) vocational or career-related skills mostly because it looks great to say that skills learned today get you a job tomorrow, and they can show the statistics of how many kids got a job within X number of months. However, I think that so often the skills that wind up getting taught are hard-to-transfer “hard” skills (in my day it was things like “keyboarding”), and the “softer” skills like problem solving, critical thinking, analysis and so on get ignored. But those “soft” skills are precisely the ones you wind up needing to have when you have to make a major career change – which will happen to most of us more than once before we retire.

    This sort of thinking looks grand on paper, but I think it is short-term thinking. A longer term idea would be to get our kids ready for a changing workplace – one where they can readapt several times between the ages of 20 and 70, not one where they have to retrain every five years.

  • Noelle

    “Is the role of education to prepare people for a job? Or is it to provide intellectual enrichment.”

    This seems, to me, to be more the question at hand here. When I think of the general areas of study students can pursue in a bachelor’s degree (vocational programs aside), very few point to an actual ‘career’, with the exception of nursing and education. And even so, that doesn’t guarantee a job after you turn your tassle to the other side. I have several friends who graduated nearly two years ago now with education degrees and have found little work outside of subbing.

    That being said, I attended a liberal arts school – the philosophy there was very much ‘learning for the sake of learning’, rather than for the sake of a future career (and in my opinion, that SHOULD be the point). Many of us recent liberal arts grads are now floundering in the career world with few specialized skills, but so are biology and business majors from the U of M.

  • Alanna in MI

    @ LJ:

    I too had to do a walk-along job thing in 9th grade. I already knew what I wanted to be, and had since at least 6th grade. I wanted to be a civil engineer, just like my dad. I did the walk-along with him, which only enforced my desire to be an engineer. I know for some kids in my class, it was a good eye-opener. Some of the careers they were considering turned out to be a lot different from what they had thought.

    While I think that choosing a career early in high school is helpful, I don’t think that they shouldn’t be allowed to deviate from that path. People change as they grow up, and jobs change constantly as well. The freedom to be whatever you want to be is a great thing. Nobody should be forced into something they don’t want to do.

  • bsimon

    ” Is the role of education to prepare people for a job? Or is it to provide intellectual enrichment.”

    The role of a *state funded* education is to prepare students to be productive members of society. In my opinion that means the answer to Bob’s question is ‘both’. Through intellectual enrichment students can be exposed to ideas and options they might never otherwise consider. We’re all better off if the kids graduating from high school have some sense of their opportunities in life – ideally such that people gravitate towards careers in which they are productive. The luckiest will be happy & satisified as well.

  • Bob Collins

    My youngest son didn’t really have a goal until senior year in high school. That’s when he took some electives which allowed college credit by way of a local community college. He is working now on becoming a paramedic and it was the first time that we saw a real light go off in which he felt passionate about something.

    I do wonder if he were forced to come up with some career guideline at an earlier age, whether the opportunity to discover his passion would’ve still presented itself.

  • Joanna

    I think this is a silly idea for many reasons:

    a) resources to implement it? none. zip. already dead.

    b) developmentally appropriate for all or even most kids? No. give them opportunities to explore, don’t lock them into a plan when they can barely imagine how tall they are going to be when they stop growing.

    c) how many times do college students change majors, or young people entering the work force change careers because they discover that what they want to do is not necessarily what they thought they wanted to do? As a college educator, I see young people discovering themselves, not sticking to an ordained path.

    d) how will this function to steer kids into what adults think they should or can do? I was told as a girl by a math teacher that “girls can’t do math” even though I got As in math. I was too young to stand up to him, even though I knew he was wrong. There are already too many class, race, and gender biases at work that discourage young people from imagining their futures.

    My daughter’s in the 9th grade. She was anxious that she didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up. I told her it was way too early for her to know that, and to relax and enjoy learning.

  • j

    I agree that mandating 9th graders choose their career path and have it annually reviewed is silly. I do think it is important to have students think about their future plans, but forcing them to identify a path in 9th grade is not a good idea. It could end up making some kids feel locked into their initial choice.

    I didn’t even have any idea of what I wanted to do until I did PSEO my senior year in high school. I took some courses and figured out where my interests were. Initially I considered doing something in psychology, but in my 3rd year of college decided to go for political science.

  • MS

    While I am sure that having kids in high school think about, research, or otherwise contemplate where they might go career-wise is a great idea, I am strongly of the opinion that public education’s purpose is a general, wide-ranging education of the basic topics, skills, etc. of the world around us. Training for a specific career is the place of junior college, college or university, or an on-the-job class. Why do I feel this way? Because the jobs of today are not necessarily the jobs of tomorrow, and if today’s students are trained into jobs that become obsolete or less in-demand, how will they transition to another career?

    As an example, consider the automotive industry currently. The news is full of stories of workers who have been laid off, and are unable to find other jobs because they simply haven’t got the skills required. With legislation requiring students to choose a career path in high school, we would essentially be mandating that anyone trained in something that has become dead-end is lost. Those workers can’t very well return to high school for skills in another field, and they would have skipped on other skills that might have helped them transition to a new industry or to open their own business.

    One final note – I don’t have a citation for this, but I have seen/heard a statistic about the average person changing not only jobs but careers multiple times during their lives. Yet again, if the basic high school education is geared to a specific career or sub-set of careers, how would a transition like that ever take place? Yes, make students think about it, give them some ideas and a general direction to look for a career, but don’t mandate that they settle on something before they’ve even learned to drive.

  • kennedy

    In my opinion it is ridiculous for parents to offload another responsibility to an already overburdened institution.

    I have children in elementary school and have volunteered to help with various programs. The vast majority of students who are succeeding have involved parents. By success I refer to not only to good grades and good behavior, but also asking good questions and approaching problems logically.

    The guarantor for a childs success is involved parents, not an age deadline for having a career plan.

  • Bob Collins

    I don’t believe these recommendations come as a result of parents not forcing kids to select a career at an early age.

    The question of the role of school is a fascinating one. I have to admit that I thought almost exclusively of economics and careers when my kids were young and still living at home. I don’t think I forced that thinking on them, but I might have.

    In my next life, I’m planning on coming back as a better father.

  • Minn Whaler

    In 9th grade I took a test that was supposed to pinpoint “career paths” by measuring interests and strengths. Mine came out with the following suggestions: Mechanic, YMCA director, Social Work or Sales. I eneded up with a degree in Broadcast Communications and have since been a DJ, Advertising Sales “executive”, Nursery school teacher, Phone company business rep, National Trade association executive, church administrative assistant, health care advocate, etc. I’m 53, still wondering what I’ll do when I grow up. Read “The Gift” by Lois Lowry if you are thinking career path should be guided by the educational system, and get aback to me.

  • brian

    Minn, do you mean “The Giver”?

  • Heather

    Minn Whaler, you take me back! In 8th grade, I was given an “interest inventory” to determine my career aptitudes. I was not “very much like” anything on the list. I was sort of like a florist, and it was clear that I should not go into mathematics or the military. The message I took away, at 13, was that I was never going to fit in. It was kind of devastating.

    My careers so far, at 39: teacher, massage therapist, non-profit member services, marketing communications. And you know what? I’ve loved them all.

  • There is no way that the vast majority of kids know what they want to do for a career when they are in 9th grade or even sometimes until they are exposed to a wider range of subjects in college.

    Heck, when I graduated high school I wanted to be a chemical engineer. I was convinced of it my final year in high school. I ended up deciding to try my hand at a music career ahead of college and once returned to college 15 years later, I wanted to do something completely different.

    and @bigalmn, if people need remedial english and math going into a special career track isn’t the solution. they should be getting that no matter what their future plans or they shouldn’t be gettting a diploma.

  • Minn Whaler

    The Giver… yes.. was typing way too fast!

    but now I can add, I have always loved what I did, except the sales gigs… and right now, I have the best job I’ve ever had.

  • Erik Dwyer

    I’m a freshman in college. I’m currently thinking about majoring in TV Production, something I had never even thought about in high school at all. My freshman year I was going to be a pilot. I knew, in my freshman year of high school, that my career path was to be a commercial airline pilot. That path then changed my junior year of high school, I wanted to be a computer programmer, but that soon changed because I quickly lost interest when I learned what programming actually was. My next career path after that was computer networking. Anyways, point is, none of my high-school career paths are something I think about anymore. I am now going into TV production, which is far from being a pilot.

  • Lindsay Petterson

    As I was listening to the program, I was trying to figure out what people think school is about. Isn’t it about preparing you for a career? Wouldn’t it make sense to begin thinking about and planning for a career in 9th grade? The idea that EVERY student should go to college is part of the reason that Minneapolis has a 30% graduation rate. College isn’t right for everyone. To put them all on the SAME track is exactly how we are losing them. By opening up the discussion and making it ok NOT to attend a 4 year institution students might figure out that they are not a failure just because the ONE currently acceptable track (college) isn’t right for them.

  • Kyle

    How is 9th grade the point to decide where your career path is heading? A lot of 9th graders are happy if they’ve passed algebra..

  • Mo Amundson

    As the Chair of the Education Action Committee, I would like to address the misconceptions of the author of this article. Apparently, you did not read the background material on the recommendation. Our recommendation is intended to have students explore many DIFFERENT career options over their high school years. With the cost of college continuing to rise, students should have at least explored some potential career pathways and have selected appropriate classes to help them get there. This is the opposite of “tracking”. It is to ensure that students have enough information to make smart decisions about what classes will help get them to where they want to go (ie should I be an Auto Mechanic or would I rather design cars as an Engineer). Pathways will and probably should change as students gather more information. The goal is for students to find success in their future based on good information and making informed choices.

  • Susan Doherty

    There’s a difference between asking students to begin planning for the future and asking them to actually choose a career path. We do students a huge disservice if we don’t provide opportunities to think about who they are, what they like, what they might like to do that fits their interests and talents, and what kind of postsecondary education they’ll need to be prepared. None of the planning process requires actually choosing a career. Instead, it helps them think ahead, take the courses they need while in high school, and, hopefully, see the relevance of what they’re learning. The whole point is to provide them with information and experiences that help them think about their lives and keep options open. You can’t diverge from a plan unless you have at least thought about where you’re heading.