College & Workforce Readiness

Students’ ‘Dream Jobs’ Out of Sync With Emerging Economy

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 22, 2020 6 min read
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In the middle of the last century, the U.S.-Russia space race launched “astronaut” and “rocket scientist” as new “dream jobs” for a generation.

But since the start of this century, the career aspirations of teenagers have narrowed, not expanded, in spite of arguably equally dramatic technological and social changes. A new global study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development finds teenagers’ “dream jobs” today are nearly identical to those in 2000, and could leave many students at a disadvantage in the emerging economy.

“What is striking is that most [dream jobs] are actually 19th- or 20th-century jobs. Very few aspire to 21st-century jobs by the age of 17,” said Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director for education and skills and a co-author of the study, at a discussion of the study Wednesday at the 50th annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which was livestreamed via Twitter. “You see the world of work becoming more diverse, but what young people cite is becoming more myopic, more concentrated. ... What we know about the future of work doesn’t make its way into classrooms and experiences of young people.”

OECD oversees the Program for International Student Assessment, which measures the academic skills of more than a half million 15-year-olds in 79 countries. As part of the 2018 tests, PISA also surveyed students in 41 countries and economies, including the United States, about their career goals and what preparation and guidance they had been given in career-planning.

Analysts found in 2018, 47 percent of boys and 53 percent of girls worldwide said they expected to work in one of only 10 jobs, a significantly higher concentration than in 2000.

Both boys and girls preferred to be doctors, teachers, business managers, lawyers, architects, and police. Separately, girls also favored nurses/midwives, psychologists, designers, and veterinarians, and boys also expressed interest in becoming information technology professionals, sportspeople, and motor vehicle mechanics. Girls’ career goals changed somewhat since 2000, with designers, architects, and police edging out writers, secretaries, and hairdressers in the top 10 jobs. The most popular jobs among boys didn’t change at all.

“Perhaps the world of work is just becoming more confusing,” Schleicher said. “In the past, most occupational types were pretty clear. Today there are new emerging jobs all the time, and people stick more closely to what they know best when the world is changing fast.”

He noted that even if students learn that a “data scientist” is a well-paying job, most have never experienced it and can’t understand what one does. “It highlights that we just need to do a much better job in bringing this future of work to classes of young people who do not see it.”

Career Mismatch

Students’ most sought-after jobs overwhelmingly required postsecondary or even advanced degrees, but researchers found a mismatch between students’ career goals and their academic performance and educational plans.

High-performing students from low-income backgrounds were four times less likely to aim for a professional or managerial career than wealthier high-performing students. And disadvantaged students who wanted a professional career were more likely than wealthier students to believe they did not need more than a high school diploma to get one.

The focus on fewer careers and the misunderstanding of the preparation needed for different jobs meant that students often overlooked more accessible jobs in expanding fields, the OECD found.

For example, students ranked a travel agent as the 65th most popular job, compared to a rating of 71 for an occupational therapy assistant—both jobs that require an associate degree. But the therapy assistant makes on average more than $60,000 a year, and demand is expected to rise 27 percent in the next decade, while economists expect demand for travel agents to shrink nearly 6 percent by 2028, and they make $21,000 less annually than the therapy assistants.

More than a third of the jobs U.S. students favored are considered at high risk of being automated in the next 15 years. In the United States, as in all of the countries studied, boys and low-income students were more likely to prefer jobs in danger of being automated.

“Oftentimes we say, ‘the jobs today won’t exist tomorrow,’ but we need to also talk about what jobs will be there and be very clear,” said Brittany Singh Williams, the chief ecosystem officer at Spark Education, a Jamaica-based international education development group. “If you come from a socioeconomic background that does not give you a lot of opportunities, you’re not going to even know what to strive for or have any role models to look to.

“If we limit our children’s experiences to just what happens in the classroom, then it’s going to make it a lot harder for them to see where they fit in the world,” she said.

Building Job Exposure

Across the 41 countries studied, fewer than 40 percent of 15-year-olds reported taking part in any career-development activities in primary or secondary grades, the OECD found.

Students who participated in job fairs, work-shadowing, and internships were more likely to be motivated to work hard at school and to see education as relevant to their future, the study found. High-performing, low-income students who participated in those activities also were more likely to say they expected to be professionals or managers. By contrast, high-performing, low-income students who researched different occupations on the Internet or completed a work questionnaire about their interests and abilities were significantly less likely to aim for professional jobs.

Nick Chambers, the chief executive of the international charity Education and Employers, which matches schools with volunteers from business and other fields to improve college and career planning, argued that schools not only need to ensure students participate in more career guidance and activities, but also must start them in earlier grades.

Chambers pointed to the 2018 “Drawing the Future” study, in which 13,000 children ages 7-11 were asked to draw what they wanted to be when they grew up and answer questions about how they had learned about the job. The children’s responses were matched to actual careers, more than 90 percent of which had been named as preferred jobs by 16-year-olds in an earlier survey in the same series. Across countries, Chambers and his colleagues found, children began to develop gender and socioeconomic stereotypes about careers as early as 7 that were visible in teenagers’ career preferences. Children overwhelmingly learned about their chosen job through a family member or teacher; fewer than 1 percent of children had learned about a job from someone in the career coming to their school.

“If you live in a middle-class family and your children go to a friend’s house, a lot of those will be professionals. They’ll be surrounded by really interesting people and it will just be normal. But if you’re not in that network, how do you know?” Chambers said. “Unless people make the effort to go into schools when students are at a young age, those kids will start ruling out options. It’s not about career advice in primary [grades]; it’s about bringing the world to life.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 12, 2020 edition of Education Week as Students’ ‘Dream Jobs’ Don’t Match New Economy


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