There was a time when I thought that I wanted to pursue some type of medical career. A field trip to Baylor College of Medicine put those plans to rest. Our group got a sneak peak into a room filled with huge jars of body parts resting in formaldehyde. I did my best to keep my composure but I was more than a bit worried that I might pass out. It was not long after that experience that I decided that I might be better suited for something else. I wasn’t quite sure what that would be, I only felt certain that it would not be either a doctor or nurse. Like so many young people I struggled to finally decide on a career path that suited my interests and abilities. In other words, I was lost.
I’ve always believed that we do our young people a disservice when it comes to helping them to decide how to spend a significant portion of their daily lives as adults. They rarely get a complete picture of the opportunities for work that exist nor are they well informed as to how to gain the skills and experiences that they will need in order to be ready for various jobs. We’ve experimented with the educational process over the years and even those best efforts are too often inadequate.
When my mother was in high school there were quite distinct learning tracks designed to prepare students for a variety of future employment. She and her peers had to take courses from a core curriculum that would enable them to attend college later if they so chose to do, but they also had the opportunity to try classes that were designed to introduce them to the skills needed for various trades. She took several home economics classes which included a focus on home management, sewing, cooking, and nutrition. She also signed up for courses in typing, shorthand, and bookkeeping. Because her parents had never even completed high school she never thought about attending college. In fact, her father’s expectation for his children was that they would become financial contributors to the household once they had graduated from high school. She was definitely ready to enter the workforce at a very young age. She did secretarial work for a county judge, the dean of a college, and an engineering firm. She took great pride in her work and often boasted about how wonderfully her high school had prepared her for the real world. In fact she noted that in addition to the courses that she chose there were classes in carpentry, automotive repair, and a host of other areas that often led participants into apprenticeships and lifelong careers.
By the time I was in high school there were clear signs that the educational tide was turning. There was more of an emphasis on college preparation with electives intended chiefly to enrich lifestyles rather than to be considered actual career pathways. The world was rapidly changing and those in charge had decided that justice demanded that more of us be given the opportunity to extend our educations well beyond high school. Still, there was very little guidance as to the kinds of jobs that were available in the market place. In my own case I had few role models to either inform or inspire me. Most of the women that I knew were either housewives, secretaries, nurses or teachers. My worldview was so limited that I was completely unaware of the incredible possibilities that existed. Additionally, much like my mother before me there was a definite insistence that I become able to support myself as quickly as possible. My mother could not even imagine the idea that I might move away from home and live the life of a university student. In her mind that was a wasteful luxury that only the most affluent might afford. Instead I attended the University of Houston which was originally chartered to educate the children of the working men and women of the city. it was only when I was there that I began to realize that the world was far more interesting and complex than I had ever imagined. Still, I was a lost soul, adrift in a sea of uncertainty as to what I should do for the rest of my life.
I suspect that we still have not refined our educational system enough to help lead young people to satisfying work. We have become better at exposing them to more science and mathematics. We have torn down barriers for women. We have even filled our schools with counselors whose sole job is to help students to find universities that will be the best fit for their needs. Unfortunately in the process we have tended to throw the baby out with the bath water. The emphasis is almost exclusively on preparation for college. The old technology programs have all but disappeared from most high schools. Students who are interested in skilled trades have to attend community colleges to even get a sense of what the jobs might be like. It is rare for someone to graduate from high school and immediately find work that pays enough for them to provide for themselves. Our young people are generally not ready to assume adult employment roles beyond the level of minimum wage jobs that are dead ends. In schools we often ignore those who show little interest in pursuing a college degree. They tend to be on their own.
Today more and more students continue their educations at universities, often without any idea of what they really want to study. They many times find acceptable majors on the run, often choosing particular fields of study after being in a class with exceptional professors who catch their interest. It is rare for them to receive information regarding actual employment opportunities within a certain field. They simply believe that having a college degree will open doors for them that might otherwise be closed.
It was not until I was in graduate school that I finally became engaged in a level of research that allowed me to find out more about myself and the employment opportunities and trends in the United States and the world. One of my requirements was to take a course specifically designed to inform me as to the relationship between interests and real work. After taking a series of lengthy tests I received an in depth analysis of jobs that matched my unique essence. The findings were surprising but also gave rise to a certain level of anger because by then I was well into my forties and I realized that I might have had a smoother pathway had I taken the tests when I was younger. As it happened, I had somewhat stumbled upon a good fit anyway but the analysis showed me that I might have been so much more. I was deemed to be well suited to be a teacher but the results indicated that I would have been much happier at a university. The analysis suggested a slew of careers besides education that I had never even considered but which certainly sounded intriguing.
In the same graduate study program I also learned how to use various publications to determine the potential for employment associated with virtually every college major and skilled trade. I realized that too few young people ever know of such things. They spend years in college pursuing degrees in fields of study that are unlikely to ready them for instant employment. It is little wonder that so many of our youth are now angry when the reality for them is that they carry huge educational debts with few prospects for employment. It is heartbreaking when I talk with former students who possess college diplomas but work as clerks in retail establishments because there are no jobs in the fields that they chose. Even worse in my mind are the numbers of college graduates who reluctantly decide to become teachers by default because it is the only avenue open to them. They don’t really like the work which makes for a miserable existence for both them and their students.
We really do need to design programs for our students that help them to find their way into college majors and training programs that specifically suit their needs. The kind of intensive testing that I completed as a graduate student would be a good start. I had to pay a rather large sum of money for my daughters to get the same benefit that I received as part of my education. Obviously most students are not able to enjoy such a luxury. It is up to our public schools to provide them with the tools that will help them to find the best fit for their life’s work. This will require dedication and more counselors who are truly interested in their welfare and not in just placing them in random universities so that the high schools will have bragging rights.
We waste far too much time and money on one size fits all educational programs that are too often ill suited for a significant portion of our youth. We have young people in their mid twenties who are loaded with debt and still wondering how to find satisfying work even after graduating from college. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can help guide them through the process of setting realistic goals based on their individual circumstances. Perhaps if we worried less about how well they do on standardized tests and more about how to help them to choose wisely from the myriad available career paths we might finally realize the full potential of our educational system.