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Managing College & Career Anxiety — for Parents

31Oct 2009

This past week I had the opportunity to speak to about 70 parents at a private college prep high school.  The anxiety level in the room was moderately high because these parents were there to hear answers about how to get their students to take seriously the process of finding a career path and choosing a college to attend.

Earlier this fall, I wrote an entry on anxiety — understanding it and strategies for managing it, so I won’t repeat those principles here.  But I had a number of parents comment afterwards that limiting the amount of future they think about was a helpful concept to them.

I continue to “preach” the concept that a student’s career path is the combination of understanding themselves (their abilities, interests, personality style, etc.) and knowledge about the world of work. And I fully believe that we continually overemphasize the individual aspect of the equation. In fact, (although it is a bit of an over-statement) I have come to believe that it really doesn’t matter what a student wants to do. Ask anyone one of the tens of thousands of individuals who have been laid off, furloughed or who can’t find work.

The issue isn’t “what do I want to do” but “what goods or services are needed that people are willing to pay for“?  As a culture, we have forgotten that the primary purpose of a career is to provide financially for ourselves and our family. This is accomplished by providing a service (either customers or an employer) that someone needs and is willing to pay for — and obviously, that we are qualified to provide.

There are thousands of people who right now aren’t working in their primary career field.  They aren’t doing what they went to college to study.  But they have their current job because “it pays the bills”.  This is a reality that many young people don’t fully understand  (or haven’t until recently).

So, the point is: young people today need to focus more on learning about the world of work, and less on what they are interested in doing. (Hopefully, they will find a career path that meets this desire, but it is the secondary issue.) They need to find out “what is out there” — what jobs and careers exist, what do you really do in them, and what the current and future needs are.

To press the point further, it isn’t that helpful to know that you are good with numbers, like animals, are introverted, and have the resources to go to college if you don’t know what career paths match these characteristics, what course of study is needed, and what the needs are for the future.

So how does a student learn about the world of work? Being blunt — by working. Not by taking “Introduction to [Psychology, Veterinary Science, Computer Science, Elementary Education, insert your area of interest here]”. Not by going to a lot of fun camps.  Not by playing sports all summer, every summer from junior high through high school. I have written previously on the importance of work experience for college graduates seeking employment. And after my presentation this past week, I had a large number of business owners and managers approach me, saying, “That part about students needing to work — I couldn’t agree with you more.  Keep saying it.”

There are lots of opportunities for students to learn about the world of work:  part-time jobs, summer jobs, shadowing, interviewing professionals, talking to college professors in your area of interest, talking to older friends (say, friends of your older sibling) about their experiences, and volunteering.

Generally speaking, I think parents should focus less on SAT & ACT prep courses (although they can make a big difference in scholarship awards) and more on their students getting some work experience. Getting into the college of your choice doesn’t matter much if you don’t have a clue what you are going to study. After all, we do know what academic success predicts, don’t we?  Academic success at the next level.  Academic success, in itself, has little predictive validity for career success. (There are a lot of successful students who don’t learn the skills necessary to succeed in the world of work — a topic for another entry sometime.)

Why am I “hammering” this issue of work so hard? Because I am seeing lots and lots of young adults who were great kids and teens, who did well in school, had fun in high school (and college), who didn’t work much — and who are virtually lost in their career direction because they don’t know what is “out there” in the world of work, and they don’t know how to find out.

Hopefully, my message will help you and your student avoid this unpleasant pathway. If I can be of help, let me know. I am doing more and more career coaching for young adults to help them find out what is “out there” and develop a plan to figure out their career path (many of these are long distance, by telephone or video conference.)

Have a good week!

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