Federal Opinion

Why Is Career Planning a Low Priority in High Schools?

By John G. Bendt — May 12, 2008 4 min read
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Today a majority of high school students spend little time and effort exploring and evaluating what they want to do when they enter their work lives. As a result, they have little understanding of the workplace, and no action plan to prepare for a happy and successful future.

It’s paradoxical that college-bound students and their parents put so much energy into selecting and gaining admission to a good college, yet give only minimal thought to such tasks as selecting a future occupation and learning the workplace skills required to compete in a global job market. Many students thus enter college with little direction and are naive about how the real world functions.

The 2006 report put out by the Conference Board, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Corporate Voices for Working Families, and the Society for Human Resource Management, “Are They Really Ready To Work?,” found a disturbing trend developing in the United States: Many of today’s entry-level workers, even those with a four-year college degree, lack the critical workplace skills needed to succeed on the job. (The full report is available at www.conference-board.org.)

To reverse this trend, we need to raise the priority of career planning for high school students, so that many more will explore occupational interests and learn some of the skills, tools, and attitudes they will need to achieve success in their work lives. Huge rewards can be gained by students who become proactive career planners. Here are some considerations that students—and those who teach and counsel them—should keep in mind:

Work at something you love. Students who explore occupations are more likely to pursue a career path they will find interesting and fulfilling. They also learn which “hard” and “soft” skills are needed to achieve success in the occupation, and therefore are better able to plan their coursework to support potential career paths.

Develop marketable skills. Proactive career planners can use extracurricular activities and part-time jobs to build important workplace “soft” skills such as these: verbal and written communication, ability to listen and relate to co-workers, teamwork, problem-solving, ability to be organized and use time effectively, ability to plan, organize, and set priorities, and the ability to persuade and resolve conflicts.

They also will have opportunities to demonstrate such personal attributes as responsibility, dependability, strong work ethic, self-motivation, self-confidence, flexibility, adaptability, and the ability to work under pressure.

Get a head start. Students who practice these skills in their extracurricular activities and part-time jobs are able to develop a résumé and portfolio of letters of recommendation that will greatly enhance their credentials and their chances of winning admission to college. They will also gain a head start in building skill advantages that are important to employers, thereby positioning themselves to win the job they want when they enter their work lives.

Bring occupations to life. Exploration of occupations also provides opportunities for students to interview adults working in the field. These contacts can lead to valuable mentor relationships, which can provide the student practical career advice and also help him or her in the complicated process of “growing up.”

Given the benefits, shouldn’t career planning have a higher priority in high school?

Save money. Proactive career planning can help college-bound students greatly reduce the possibility of requiring extra time to complete a four-year degree. The incremental cost of taking an additional year to graduate is very significant when college costs and missed income are considered. For example, the College Board estimates that the average annual college cost for a public college in 2007 was $13,589 and for a private college, $32,307. Average starting salaries for business, engineering, and computer-science occupations in 2008 range from $43,459 to $63,749, according to JobWeb.com, a career-development and job-search-advice Web site for college graduates.

Requiring one additional year of college because of indecision about a career path can therefore create an average incremental cost ranging from $57,048 to $96,056, depending on whether one attends a public or private college and what one’s starting salary would be. This is a significant penalty to pay for indecision and false starts.

Given the benefits—and the potential price of not acting—shouldn’t career planning have a higher priority in high school? A collaborative effort by parents, counselors, and teachers is needed to coach and guide students, as they are unlikely to initiate action on their own. An effective career-planning program should help students learn how to identify career interests and follow a process to eventually select a career path. It should educate students about the role competition plays in the workplace and which skills are valued by employers. Lastly, it should coach students in how to learn and practice these skills, so that they are prepared to achieve success in their work lives.

Parents should play the leading role in encouraging and guiding their children’s career-planning activities. School counselors should support both parents and students by educating them about the process, and pointing them to tools the school may provide to achieve program objectives such as those discussed here. Teachers can support students by incorporating the use of applied skills in the curriculum, and by encouraging them to explore careers related to the subjects they teach.

Working together, we can make a big difference in how high school students prepare for their future. We all spend a great amount of our lifetimes in our jobs. What could be better than to help our children find and be successful at a job they love to do?


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