This post originally appeared on the Tennessee College Access and Success Network blog.
I had two career choices when I was a teenager. I either wanted to be a ninja assassin spy of the James Bond type or play first base for the Chicago Cubs. Obviously, these were not very realistic and attainable goals for me. The dream of being a ninja assassin died when I put a hole through the ceiling of my parent’s living room with a set of nunchucks (I discovered mom and dad could go ninja when they wanted). The Cubs dream died an agonizing death over many years and many high school and college baseball practices.
Like everyone, throughout high school and college, I had taken a number of career assessment inventories. The suggested career options were always the same. “Maintenance” always ranked very high. There’s nothing wrong with the maintenance profession but I didn’t feel that I was destined for that line of work. I went to a liberal arts college “undecided,” and eventually majored in political science with an emphasis on Sino-Soviet Relations and the Vietnam War. This turned out to be a very useful degree. I’m highly sought after as a Trivial Pursuit partner and essential for after-dinner parties when someone is in need of a nikolaschka.
It’s easy for adults to forget the difficulty of becoming an adult. I call it the “Lloyd Dobler Effect.” My parent’s generation would have called it the “Benjamin Braddock Effect.” It is a uniquely American phenomenon, and why we end up with so many theatre and psychology majors in the restaurant management industry. It’s why we have unmet workforce shortages in particular fields while others are saturated with workers. However, it is also why we have IT professionals designing software to further enhance the works of Shakespeare, CEO historians, and fine arts majors using creativity to combat poverty. Our educational system leans towards the non-linear, sometimes undervaluing vocational and workforce needs. Both are necessary.
As a college access professional, I’ve conducted numerous workshops with adults where I begin with:
Raise your hand if what you are currently doing for a living what you thought you would be doing when you were seventeen years old?
This gets a chuckle throughout the room, every time. Less than 5% of the participants raise their hand. Those of the 5% that do, tend to be teachers, doctors, and nurses.
I ask the question in reverse when I present to high school students. I suggest a high paying profession currently experiencing a workforce shortage and suggest that we all go into that field. “Let’s all go into the IT field and develop software for a living!” The chuckles are replaced with groans and about 5% of the room will raise their hands. Not that there is anything wrong with the IT profession. Young people picture it as spending exciting days over a keyboard punching out PHP code with much the same delight as I imagined pushing a broom for a living.
College student development theorist, Arthur Chickering, poses in his “7 Vectors of College Student Development” that a student must develop competencies and establish identity before developing a purpose and career to match their competency and passion. For most people, this does not happen in high school. It happens in college. And not right away. Three-quarters of first year college students who enter college with a declared major will change their major.
Secondary education offers a sliver, a glimpse, into the plethora of professions that make up our society. Postsecondary education opens up the world.