Home Education Magazine
March-April 1997 - Articles
Helping Your Child with Career Planning - Susan M Johnston
It was six weeks until high school graduation and the clock was ticking. The young man who sat across the desk from me had come to the appointment willingly but was far from enthusiastic. His anxious mother waited for him in the lobby hoping that a brief chat with a career counselor would resolve the issue that left her and her husband feeling frustrated and helpless. Their oldest son, Jack, was approaching a critical point in his transition from adolescent to adult and was clueless as to his future plans. Even more alarming, he refused to discuss the options that were available. Whenever they attempted to broach the subject he diffused them with "Don't worry about it. Everything's going to be okay." Now, confused and worried, they had reached out to a counselor to penetrate what they felt was their son's stone wall of denial.
Jack was anxious about his future and admitted he had chosen to avoid the subject. It was too much pressure to be asked to decide what he would do for the rest of his life right now. He just wasn't ready.
Despite all the support and resources available to him, Jack was struggling. Ideally, all eighteen-year-olds would approach their transition to the adult world ready to move on to new goals. The truth is that very few know what they want to do with the rest of their lives. The reasons for this are directly related to the way our culture has changed within the last 70 years.
Think about it. Seventy years ago, most teenagers would have been given ample opportunity to get a feel for the world of work by working. It was expected that they would follow dad out to the field or the mine or the store, to wade into a man's work a little at a time. As mechanization and manufacturing grew, sons were brought down to the plant when they finished school and worked side-by-side with their fathers and uncles on the production line. Work was considered a "man's world" since it was assumed most women would never enter the work force. With the exception of the work required of women during World War II, the expectation was for little girls to be trained by their mothers in the duties of homemaking. In short, careers were obvious, accessible and understandable. The choices may have been limited but they were clear-cut and straightforward.
Our children face a very different set of circumstances. Now kids are usually separated from the work environment until they are teens. No longer can they see their parents working from their back door. When parents leave for work in the morning, little ones may have no understanding where they go and what they do there. When they are finally allowed to take small jobs for pocket money, the tasks are thought of as character building, not career informing. Babysitting and newspaper delivery are encouraged as a way to learn about responsibility, not a way to learn career skills. Careers have become arcane and inaccessible; part of the mystery of adult life.
As a complicating factor, young people are asked to consider their future during a time of unprecedented change. The speed of our transition from an industrial era to an information age out paces our ability to plan effectively. According to Lester Thurow, the noted MIT economist, the major fields that will represent the leading edge in economic growth are microelectronics biotechnology, the new-materials industries, telecommunications, robotics, computer hardware and software and the still unnamed confluence of the telephone/ computer/ television/ media arts fields. These industries represent what Thurow calls "brain-power industries"and are noteworthy for the incredible speed at which they integrate new ideas and technologies into their operation and our lives. Experts speculate that the leading careers of the 21st century will emerge during the next ten years but are still unknown at this time. Indeed, the position of Internet web master did not exist ten years ago.
What can we do to help our children understand the world they will be entering and prepare themselves for that world? How can we help them set appropriate career goals and then apply themselves with diligence and commitment to attaining those goals?
The most critical aspects of making good career decisions is realizing that career planning is a process, not an event. A healthy 18-year-old has a possible 50 year career which will be reshaped and reinvented as he or she grows and the culture evolves. A career is a work in progress, a reflection of growth and aspiration. It is never a single decision. It is a plan. Your role as parent and home educator is to provide a starting point, a place to create a career plan.
Begin by Creating Career Awareness
The best way to begin planning is by establishing the right perspective. Before young people get to the actual model for career planning, it is critical that they are offered a basis for considering careers on a broader level. The most useful way of informing young children about the world of work is to draw cultural parallels between the material you are studying and the world in which we live. For instance, if you are practicing simple arithmetic, you might discuss typical work settings in which the skills would be useful. As the work becomes more complex, you might ask them to research careers in which advanced math is used and what those careers entail. History provides many examples of careers that are no longer a part of our culture or have changed dramatically over the years. Asking children to trace the evolution of a particular career and comment on its changes would encourage them to see careers on a continuum related to the larger world. It helps them see patterns in the changes, rather than viewing change as a series of random acts that spring from nowhere.
Infusing the curriculum with career education accomplishes two tasks. First, it educates children about the world of work and encourages them to view that world as less mysterious and overwhelming. Second, it gives relevancy to the skills your children are developing by drawing parallels to the world of work. It provides a context in which learning has greater value and meaning.
There are excellent publications which allow home educators to introduce intermediate grade students to opportunities in careers and further education. Dream Catchers by Norene Lindsay (JIST, Inc., Indianapolis, Indiana) focuses on career clusters, work skills and the impact of ability, effort and achievement. Written at the 4th-5th grade level, it provides activities which help children begin thinking about the structure of the world of work and what it offers them.
A fun way of creating career awareness is available through Winning The Career Game, a career board game offered by Wintergreen Orchard House, Inc., of New Orleans. Written at two different levels, either 3rd-6th grade or 5th grade through adult, players use a team based trivia game to learn about job functions and work attitudes.
Time for Career Planning
At some point, young people begin to make the transition from simply learning about careers to viewing careers as options for them to consider. The process of career planning is based on three steps: 1) self-assessment; 2) career exploration; and 3) experiential learning.
There are many approaches to self-assessment. The objective is to help children become aware of their values, personality and interests and how these aspects of who they are relate to the world of work. Self-reflection is difficult at any age but can be most challenging during adolescence when young people are struggling with identity issues. Sorting through preferences is one way of beginning the self-assessment process. What subjects does your son or daughter enjoy the most? Which material comes easily and seems to enhance their energy level? What careers correspond to the subjects that are most appealing? Answering these questions is one way of getting started.
If there are no obvious answers or if the responses don't relate to any particular area of study, then a more circumspect approach may be appropriate. There are several tests available which can be helpful to students attempting to focus their interests and learn more about themselves. The Leisure/Work Search Inventory by Dr. John J. Liptak (JIST, Inc.) is a self-administering, self-scoring instrument which offers students immediate feedback. Students rate their preferences for over 90 leisure activities. These preferences are then related to twelve career clusters. Written at the Grade 7+ reading level, the accessibility and immediacy of the results of this test are especially attractive to young people.
The most widely used instruments for determining career interest is The Self-Directed Search by Dr. John L. Holland (PAR, Inc., Odessa, Florida). This test relates interest to personality types and occupational titles. The instrument set contains a manual explaining the theories of Dr. Holland, the Self-Directed Search Form and three booklets which direct students to college majors, occupations and leisure activities compatible with their preferences.
The Internet offers several home pages which address the subject of self-assessment. Career Planning Process from Bowling Green State University and the Career Development Manual from the University of Waterloo, Canada, (sidebar) provide self-assessment instruments measuring a range of personal characteristics.
Once your child has begun to focus on a particular career, the second step in career planning, career exploration, offers a method for learning about that career. There are literally hundreds of library resources available that describe careers and provide data on salaries, job availability, and pros and cons of each job. Some of the most useful books are published by the Department of Labor and the Bureau of Labor statistics. The Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) and The Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) are comprehensive guides to jobs and the outlook to the year 2005.
The DOT offers short descriptions of all job titles in existence and organizes them into occupational clusters. The OOH synopsizes occupational data such as job duties, training needed, employment outlook and provides addresses where further information about each occupation is available. The OOH also offers an extensive Internet home page access.
Younger children may enjoy examining careers through JIST's Young Person's Occupational Outlook Handbook. Modeled on the OOH published by the Department of Labor, it offers brief highlights for 250 jobs, related school subjects and ways of "trying out" jobs. It is a good reference resource for elementary age children.
The information available through the Internet is exceptionally useful. Without leaving home, students can plug into the resources of hundreds of organizations offering free information about careers and colleges. The National Association of Colleges and Employers, in particular, on the "Catapult" home page (sidebar), presents an array of related web sites providing data on all major careers.
Library research is a critical first step before moving on to the next phase in career exploration, informational interviewing. The most valuable information about careers comes from talking to people who are actually working in the field. Frequently, young people may find that the career they are researching is represented among their own circle of friends and relatives. If not, making contact is easily managed through the yellow pages.
As an assignment, have your son or daughter call the person who is working in the field of their choice. It could be a professional to whom he or she has been referred by an acquaintance or someone he or she has never met. Either way, it should be made clear by your child that this is a homework assignment and ask if a short meeting is possible. Make sure the telephone conversation is carefully scripted and practiced. It is possible that this phone call will result in a supportive professional relationship so it should be given the attention it deserves. The student should be on time for the interview and respect the conventions of dress typical of the profession. Four basic questions are most helpful to students researching jobs:
1. What do you do on your job?
2. How did you get this position?
3. What do you believe will be happening in this career in the future?
4. Is there anyone else with whom I should talk that could tell me about this field?
Of course, a thank you card should follow the meeting.
Face-to-face conversations will provide the broad view of a career. More helpful in gaining insight into actual job duties is job shadowing, a day of following a career professional as he or she goes about daily tasks. This is the inspiration for "Take Our Daughters to Work Day," a national day of job shadowing for young women. Of course, job shadowing is beneficial to all young people regardless of gender since it allows an inside look at the actual work of careers.
The last step in career planning, experiential education, will confirm the student's interest. Experiential education is the "hands-on" part of learning about careers. Part-time and volunteer experiences are the best ways of learning about jobs. The opportunities available will depend on the field in which the student has an interest. Health care will offer few part time jobs but the opportunity to volunteer at a hospital would give a young person the chance to work side-by-side with health care professionals and get a feel for the work environment. Volunteering to assist with child care would expose young people to an environment similar to that of teaching. Coaching a little league team would give them a perspective on sports and coaching, as well as working with children. Anything from running a lemonade stand to selling door to door or stocking the shelves at the supermarket will teach young people about the business world.
A formal program in experiential education offered to young people is the Boy Scouts of America Exploring Program which introduces participants to the careers in the community through the leaders/mentors who are members of those professions. For instance, if a student has an interest in a career as an architect, he or she could join the local Explorer chapter led by architects. The activities of the chapter would introduce the members to the various types of jobs found in the field and the duties associated with them. It would also initiate them into the practice of networking, an increasingly valued career tool.
A comprehensive workbook that integrates all three steps of career planning in one useful resources is Pathfinder by Norene Lindsay (JIST, Inc.). This is a book is designed for junior high and high school students and combines interest tests with career exploration information and skill assessment exercises. It is accompanied by a Individual Career Portfolio, a folder that helps students summarize data and keep related materials in one place.
The Home Educator as Career Counselor
The challenges of guiding your child through career planning are no different from those faced by all parents and educators, but your dual role does give you an added advantage. The close working relationship you enjoy with your child allows you insight into his or her strengths, abilities, needs and interests. This informed perspective makes it possible to continually encourage your child to explore all that the world offers. Your confidence in your child's ability to deal honestly with the issues of career and growth will create an atmosphere of anticipation about the future. The future is going to offer great opportunity to those who are ready to step up to the challenges. With the right preparation and your support, your children will be ready.
© Susan M. Johnston
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