How Can We Prepare Kids for Life After High School?

“Honey, you can do anything that you put your mind, too. You can be anything you want, just study, and work hard, and you can become anything you want!”

As adults, we don’t really want to crush the hopes and dreams of future generations by seeming to be negative all the time. Some kids genuinely have the motivation and brain power to achieve. Others need constant prodding. But should we really be telling kids they can be “anything they want, if they try hard, study, work hard enough?” Can everyone be a fireman, police officer, a dolphin biologist, an astronaut, or a zookeeper? Should we really feed ripe imaginations with notions that may, in fact, be totally wrong for all but a mere few?

Not everyone can work with dolphins, or be an oceanographer, or be an art historian, or be a zoo manager, or be an astronaut. Or, more specifically, not everyone can be employed in any of those occupations. A person might be able to receive an education in those fields but finding a job is a completely different issue. There are only so many zoos in the world, therefore only so many zookeepers. If there are only 100 zookeeper jobs in the U.S. and we tell kids, “oh yeah, you could totally be a zookeeper,” and 100,000 kids decide to be zookeepers; 99,900 kids are going to be really disappointed they can’t find work.

Hand-in-hand is the idea I’ve seen floating around that children should have more say in their education. To me, that sounds much like allowing the inmates to run the asylum. I could be presuming too much, and probably am, but we can’t forget that we are training CHILDREN who have no clue how the world operates. Their brains are still forming and building pathways, development that appears to end somewhere around their 23rd year of life. And, we want to get them involved in deciding their education at what grade? Children cannot perceive danger or understand consequences, in general, until they have reached their late teens or early 20s. Everything up to that point has simply been behavior conditioning.

What I argue is that children should be coached, and we, as adults, should act responsibly both in the interest of the individual child, but also for the greater good of society.

How does this apply to life after high school, though?

No one wants to crush the hopes and dreams of a child of any age. However, we need to speak truthfully with children. Speaking truthfully means showing them facts, and details, and helping children make wise choices.

Let me provide an example:

My son wants to be photographer. Photography, while a personally rewarding field, can also be highly competitive. With every smartphone now equipped with a digital camera, and software to manage images, everyone can now be a photographer. Sort of. Professional photographers know how to compose a scene, compensate for lighting and shadow, know how to frame objects, and create mood. Those traits can come naturally, or they can be taught. A professional photographer may be self-employed; few organizations maintain a photo staff any more.

I would say, Son, you’ve picked a challenging profession. You’ll have to work hard, find a niche, perhaps, some subset of the field, that sets you apart from other professional photographers. You’ll have to travel, practice patience. You know that digital photography and software can turn any flunky into a digital artist. But, there are a bunch of people who don’t want to deal with those details. So, you should become knowledge in some software, graphics, and stay nimble in your field.

Perhaps, after some time has elapsed, after he has completed some independent research of his own – this might be a time when some self-directed education might come in handy – he decides he needs a fall-back career in the event Professional Photography does not work out. Now what?

Good question; now what? How can I help figure out what might be a useful education for him into the future?

The reality is, there may not be a great answer to that question. Whether or not someone can find employment, or stay gainfully employed, involves a large number of variables.

There is some help, though.

overview_chart_05The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes quarterly Occupational Outlook guides. These guides can help a young person identify growing career fields, fields where more people will be needed in the future, the “in demand” fields. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also conducts research regarding future demand in all fields and disciplines, charting changes in the demand for many different occupations. This research in published in annual Career Guides.

The Top 10 Fastest Growing Occupations in the United States are:

  1. Biomedical Engineering
  2. Network Systems Analysts
  3. Home Health Aides
  4. Personal and Home Care Aides
  5. Financial Examiners
  6. Medical Scientists
  7. Physician Assistants
  8. Skin Care Specialists
  9. Biochemists & Biophysicists
  10. Athletic Trainers

Someone graduating college with a Bachelor’s degree in English should not be surprised to discover how hard the job market is. Even a Master’s in English is not much more help. Taking out $50,000 in student loans to get a Master’s Degree in English, a highly competitive field with a starting salary in the low $30s is not the brightest of ideas.

Unless you have a plan. Unless you have equipped yourself with other skills, such as web programming, or technical writing, or have a science minor, and specialize in a certain area of writing. I have known people who have taken a Bachelor’s degree in English and used that degree, plus an interest in computer and collectible card games, to find interesting jobs in those fields. But, you have to have the initiative and motivation and knowledge to develop a successful plan and put that plan into action.

These guides work at the National Level, which could be problematic. Different regions of the country do not experience the same demand for jobs.

Kentucky, for example, keeps track of Labor Force information via employment projections. Most, if not all, states have an office charged with the responsibility of tracking employment trends.

Arizona’s has a workforce web site that provides job details across the entire state, and also breaks down employment opportunities around in regions of the state.

OK, so let’s re-visit my premise: should we encourage kids to pick whatever degree or field of study they set their hearts and minds on; or, should we encourage them pick a degree or field of study that will help them find gainful employment; albeit not the Dream Job they envisioned when they were 9-years old.

Also, students need to understand that the Average American will have a minimum of three careers over the course of their working life.

I think you can see where I am going with this.

Many countries around the world help, coach, and direct their young populations into career paths based on interest and abilities. Germany and Japan assess kids throughout academic careers to help direct kids into future careers. There is some ability to choose, and kids become educated for “in demand” positions. The drifting and aimless wandering, the ambivalence tends to get minimized, and countries maintain lower levels of unemployment.

I would recommend educating middle and high school students about potential, “in demand” jobs. “These 20 careers are growth careers in our state. Do any of these careers look interesting? I would encourage each of you to examine these career paths, in order to help plan for your future. You will have opportunities to pursue lots of different jobs and career paths when you get to college. There are some very esoteric careers, like microbiology, or genetics. You have to understand that those jobs do not exist everywhere, and to get a job requires at least a Master’s Degree.”

Every class in high school should engage in some kind of career planning and counseling. Biology instructors should spend time talking about biology careers, and teaching. Math teachers should spend time talking about different careers where math is important, and teaching, and so forth.

I’ve also run across teachers that state they are only charged with educating kids, not helping create socially responsible adults. Uhm, yeah, you are helping create socially responsible adults, whether you like it or not, whether you recognize you are, or not. Kids spend one-third, 33%, of their day with educators. Educators that think they are not affecting or influencing the Future Adults of America need to find another profession. Really.

Education is not simply about building a “toolbox” of skills. That is naïve and really serves no one. Allowing kids to indiscriminately select career paths willy-nilly seems irresponsible to me.  Not only is Education about helping pass along knowledge, and develop critical thinking skills, and helping make society, overall, better. Better people, better community, and a knowledgeable and discerning Voter Base. Ignorant people make really bad voters.

We, those of us involved in Education, K-12 and Higher Education, can help address employment issues in the United States. We can direct students to certain fields, or encourage them to find alternate fields, or at least encourage students to research employment in fields they find interesting to reduce the potential for surprises after graduation.

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