How Can I Better Prepare Myself For My First & Future Career?

A disturbing pathology has arisen within the American Educational System, both within K-12 and Higher Education. Policies implemented throughout all levels of the United States educational system and changes of attitudes within families are resulting in American students that are not adequately prepared for current or future employment, and worse, woefully ill-prepared to face the challenges of a 21st century multi-cultural globalized world. This is the first of a series of essays meant to identify weaknesses and offer solutions.

People are not born predestined for careers – at least in Western cultures. Children grow into young adults, and as young adults are supposed to figure out what they are supposed to do to earn money when they grow up. How does that choice get made? Not well, I think; sometimes I think the choice of occupations is made with little more thought than what’s for dinner. People spend more time researching their next car than thinking about their career choice. Later, people find themselves in occupations that they loathe, want to get out of, but is now too late. Too much debt, kids, family, and other obligations sap interest in changing career paths.

How can a student still in college avoid making a poor career choice? I must say that few people love their jobs 100% of the time. Every job has aspects that are not appealing. Thus, do not believe your first job or second or third is going to be perfect. Those people that do love what they do, how did they get there? Luck?

Sometimes, being at the right place at the right time does help. Building a professional network while in school, participating in conferences and workshops, presenting papers, can draw positive attention your way. Outside of luck, or serendipitous events, some people find themselves are fantastic career paths by careful diligence, self-motivation, and planning.

I have compiled a list of 10 Actions a student can undertake to assist him/her in using academic time wisely in not only preparing for a first career, but also for Life, in general. Not everyone has a good mentor, a good teacher, a positive family role model, or employer to help in goal-setting, or creating an academic path. In fact, even in college, advisors enroll students in courses, try to make sure they take good electives, enroll in the proper prerequisites. Career counseling, from what I gather, is rarely performed. Therefore, my list is meant to address the deficits a student might find in pursuing a degree.

  1. Study Abroad.  Traveling abroad and studying abroad are not synonymous. A person can travel abroad a “see” people, sights, eat food, etc., but without an educated eye, so much can go unnoticed, unappreciated, unlearned, and unknown. Traveling abroad is better than not, but not as valuable as Study Abroad. Study Abroad programs are structured. University courses are taught. Local and national history is typically covered, local and national culture, and ample time is provided for putting to use new-found knowledge. Employers tie travel abroad experience to positive employee traits, being willing to step into unfamiliar territory, outside of normal “comfort’ zones, undaunted  by challenging and potentially stressful situations.
  2. Learn and Use Technology.  Computers, smartphones, and now tablets are normal in everyday society. Using a web browser is as normal as eating. Texting and using smartphone apps is commonplace for everyone under 30. People use technology but are tremendously unfamiliar with how the technology really works. How can you develop good technology skills and understanding? By doing, not just using. Become familiar with MS Office – Word, Excel, Access, and Powerpoint. Learn to “speak the language” of technology. Build a database using Access, or download SQL Express. Build a web page. As you get better at design, and more comfortable, begin looking at the code behind the web pages. Take a graphics design workshop, such as Adobe Illustrator, or Flash. Learn about spatial data with a GIS/mapping workshop or college course. Google is a wonderful tool for learning. YouTube has videos covering education topics and how-to. Community colleges offer evening, weekend, and online courses covering many aspects of technology.
  3. Learn a foreign language.  A few years ago, I attended an international business conference. A representative from Adidas was a member of the panel. The ability to speak Russian, without any other experience, would guarantee anyone in the audience a starting salary of $150,000/year. No one present could speak a word of Russian, beyond “da” (yes) and “nyet” (no). My father worked in the poultry industry for two decades, selling chickens domestically and to China and Russia. When dealing with the Russian customers, he was able to find a Swede who spoke English and Russian to help him negotiate business. While English might be the lingua franca of the world, remember we are talking British English, not American English. Great Britain controlled a good portion of the world not all that long ago. China is becoming a dominant economic power, and more Americans need to speak Chinese. Arabic is another important global language if not simply for the energy sector. More importantly, the United States will always need diplomats and translators fluent in Arabic to address international diplomatic matters. A few U.S. school districts have tried to implement Russian, Chinese, and Arabic language programs only to be met with local outrage. How ignorant these misguided parents are to protest and shutdown programs that not only benefit their children, catching them at an opportune time to learn language, stretching their minds, but also work to make the U.S. fundamentally more safe, secure, and capable of interacting with the Middle East and Asian.
  4. Listen.  When your mouth is making sounds you are rendered incapable of assimilating important knowledge. Hearing is not listening. Hearing is allowing sounds to bounce around you ear canal. Listening is a process whereby one person is silent, converts the sounds to words, and synthesizes those words into content and context. Eventually, you generally have the opportunity to respond, in kind, with relevant information. Then, roles reverse. Listening is part of the learning process; listening to instructions, dialogue, and data. A person can learn a lot simply by listening to tone, word choice, and the message content. Listen to your instructor, your boss at your part-time job, your parents, and grandparents. What is said, how it is said, and what is not said.
  5. Pay Attention.  Even when you are sitting, drinking coffee at Starbucks, pay attention. How do employees address customers? Are they friendly? Are they attentive? How do the shift leaders behave? How does the day manager behave? Look around the store. Where are the creamers and sugars and waste bins? Everything in a Starbucks has a place for a reason. Everything in Wal-mart is positioned for a reason. Your environment is extremely educational if only more attention was paid. As much as some things are successful, they are successful only after having failed in the past. Pay attention to the people in positions of authority around you. Teachers, the employees and managers at your local Taco Bell, your local town or city council. What behaviors do they exhibit that make them successful?
  6. Think linearly, laterally, in three dimensions, and in Time. I could have said, “think outside the box.” My recent experience indicates that people really do not understand what that means. Some events in Life have prerequisites, having a 20% down payment for a new house, or a 20% down payment for a new car – at least that is the Rule of Thumb for a Responsible Buyer. Getting a bachelor’s degree before getting a good job. You want to build a decent set of “tools” for your skill “toolbox” to prepare for the unforeseeable. Linear thinking works well for planning your course load, planning your academic choices. Lateral thinking involves directing energy into professional organizations, planning a minor that includes a foreign language or technical skills, or evolving a hobby into a formal vocation. Consideration for the future must include plans for paying back student loans and any other debt incurred. Setting aside money for an emergency fund (one months expenses x 3) is mandatory. Develop a career plan; ask yourself, “Where do I want to be in 18 months? 24 months? 5 years?” Then, alternatively, ask yourself, “How will I adapt my plans if I miss a promotion, a raise? Will I move to a new job, or wait out this one?” Generally, being proactive – being in charge of your own path and choices – is far superior to being reactive – letting someone else make those choices for you.
  7. Shadow a Professional.  Find a person who is gainfully employed doing what you think you would enjoy. Ask him/her if you could spend a couple days learning about the job. In my early days of school, I spent a day in an architecture office. In my youth, I drew, wanted to draw. I drew very detailed cars, boats, aircraft. I imagined I would love architecture. In that afternoon, I learned that for the first 5 years after graduation, a neophyte architect must work under the license of a professional architect. During those 5 years, every nut, bolt, screw, wire, conduit, all the details of a building had to be accounted for. On a shelf above a drafting table was a row of building material catalogs. These catalogs described the traits hundreds of thousands of different building materials, what metal a bold was made from, how much stress the bolt could take before failing. I discovered that architects were not merely responsible for a buildings design, but also the materials that go into making the building. Since an architect is responsible for the building design, there is inherent liability in case something goes horribly wrong. Most states require an architect to by licensed, and to obtain that license one must work under the supervision of a licensed architect. A mentor, in other words, because someone right out of school is not ready to assume legal liability. After some deliberation, I decided architecture was not for me. My sister became really interested in Physical Therapy after my grandmother’s stroke. She visited a number of nursing homes and interviewed several physical therapists. Today, is her 18th year as a career physical therapist. I, as an IT Professional, have had a few high school students shadow me.

    However, I have known students throughout their college career who have told me how they can’t wait to be a K-12 teacher, and upon becoming one, hate every minute of it. In fact, K-12 teaching, while rewarding, has very high turnover. Long hours, battles with students, and parents, and administrators, being responsible for after-school activities, and continuing to work towards a Master’s Degree, leads to early frustration and burn-out. Then, people who anticipated being in education for years, find themselves lost after 12 months, with a Bachelor’s Degree in History, and 30 hours of education classes. Outside of K-12, not much call for those skills. And think about this: people who get Education degrees and then become disenfranchised have been through 16 years of education themselves, plus student teaching. Again, paying attention to your environment can pay dividends.

  8. Email a Professional.  Not all professions are all that accessible. Forensic Anthropology, Criminologist, CIA Case Worker, Petroleum Engineer/Geologist, to name a few. What do you do if you are interested in a career and you live in a small city or town with no local representative of that occupation? There is this technology called the “Internet,” and a tool called “Google.” See if that occupation has a professional organization. Visit the web site. Oftentimes, a page is provided for emailing a professional in that field. Or, simply find a company notable in that field, and email a polite, well-written, grammatically-correct, organized, and brief email requesting permission to ask questions about the field. Then, do that for three or four more companies in order to get a well-rounded idea of the field. At least one of those emails will most likely not result in a reply. Getting upset is a waste of time, just keep trying and move on. A good friend of mine is interesting in living abroad and working as a translator. She has been following other women in this field on Facebook, and I have encouraged her to email a select few simply to create more personal contact.
  9. Be flexible.  Suppose you want to be an Accountant. You go to school and get a degree in Accounting. Then, much to your dismay, none of the good accounting firms in your town are hiring. Now what? You could go out on your own, open your own accounting firm. However, what about a job with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)? Your accounting degree could pave your way into Forensic Accounting and Law Enforcement. When I was wondering what I would do for a living, another occupation I considered was English & Journalism. I researched the job market and quickly discovered that the field was over-populated with journalists, pay was poor, and an English bachelors degree was worthless. I thought so, anyway. Later, I made the acquaintance of a couple fellows who both had degrees in Technical Writing. They developed a collectible card game that they later sold to a large game company. One of those fellows then went on to work for a Seattle-based game company, and the other went to work for Tiger Electronics in Chicago, developing electronic hand-held games. My thinking was not flexible, at least not as flexible as theirs. I could not see how an English or writing degree would help me in anything other than creating a sentence, whereas those two fellows took degrees in Technical Writing to work in a field they both loved – games. Moving out of your town for employment might be necessary, out of your state, or even out of the country. If you live in a town with one public library, one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school, and you want to be a librarian, how many librarian jobs are available? Four. Someone will have to die for you to get a job, or, you’ll have to move. If you live in a town with one TV station, how many weatherperson jobs are available? Think about the employment field within 180 miles of your location; the possibility exists that you may have to move to find that dream job.
  10. Do some research.  Much of what I have discussed falls into the category of research. People research cars, houses, neighborhoods, LCD-TVS, smartphones; why shouldn’t they also research one of the most, if not THE MOST IMPORTANT DECISION, of their life? Right? Shadow a professional. Email a professional. The United States Government produces a guide called the Occupation Outlook Handbook each year. The guide details most occupations found within the United States, potential growth, pay scales, and differences in those traits based on geography. Geography can be really important. Pay attention to what is needed in your region. Media outlets may state national trends, needing more nurses, engineers, mathematicians, or database managers. In your region, some jobs, like programmers, nurses, and database professionals might be in high demand. In some areas, like Silicon Valley (San Jose/San Francisco), Washington D.C., or Chapel Hill, North Carolina, database managers might be a dime a dozen. When a region has more professionals that the businesses can support, the glut drives wages down. Therefore, you might have to move to a region where demand is high.

    However, before doing that, I recommend you conduct a personal inventory of interests, skills, and abilities. These are generally known as self-assessment exams or career discovery tests. I recommend visiting an employment center, or a career resource center at a local community college or university. You could do this one you own; a few are available online. The problem with doing a self-assessment is bias; we think we are better or worse than we might actually be. Visiting an office and working with a counselor can help us be more honest. For example, at the beginning of the semester I ask students to fill out a brief form. I want to know their intended degree program, GPA to-date, and anticipated grade for the course. Students will state a GPA of 2.5 or 2.8 (basically a “C”) yet anticipate a grade of “B” or “A”. Their anticipated grade is not consistent with their GPA, therefore are overestimating academic performance. We have to be honest with ourselves if we want an accurate assessment of our abilities, strengths, weaknesses. Research your occupations of interest, and research yourself.

Many students will pass through three, four, or even five majors of study before deciding. Don’t feel bad if you can’t figure one out immediately. I spent 2-1/2 years studying engineering; I wanted to build fighter jets and missiles. Or so I thought. I visited engineering schools. I elected to begin at a community college close to home. The community college had developed a transfer program with the flagship engineering school in the state. After 2-1/2 years, I was burnt-out from working part-time and full-time and trying to attend school full-time. My final semester at community college I took classes outside engineering, American Literature, Business Law, Accounting I, and I tried Thermodynamics again.

Many universities and community colleges are restructuring degree programs. Restructuring is in response to fast changing business trends, increases in the cost of higher education, and the associated costs of financial aid. The unintended consequence of the restructuring allows for less “experimentation” in choosing courses, of trying a course in law, or accounting, or economics, or English. While these changes are meant to address the costs of school and time spent in school, these changes do nothing to help a student select a field or discipline – part of the real money and time expense.

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