Next Step…College? Engaging youth in inclusive conversations about diverse career pathways.

September 22, 2021
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By Liz Vocasek, M.Ed.

Early on in academics children receive messaging that the key to achieving a stable and successful career is through obtaining a 4-year college degree. Well, while it sounds counterintuitive coming from a college experience coach, in conversations with young people I rarely ever prescribe college as the first or only option for students and families. Education comes in all shapes and sizes through a variety of different experiences and institutions—some which can go unmentioned because of perceived value or simply lack of awareness. So, as parents, educators, and allies of young people, let us challenge ourselves to look at, discuss and celebrate the many educational trajectories which can lead to a fulfilling and successful life.

So, what is out there?

College. Whether a community college, small liberal arts college, or sprawling public university—these institutions offer a wealth of 2-year, 4-year, and advanced degree options. That said, I want to highlight the wealth of resources and opportunities that are available in addition to a traditional degree program. From non-credit continuing education courses to study abroad programs to specialized summer camps to niche workforce certifications, it is worth exploring the vast opportunities that exist both in and outside of the undergraduate studies office.

Vocational/Technical Education. Though still misconstrued by some as second-tier education, vocational and technical schools are often industry experts leading the way into specialized careers. For less time and money, as well as the ability to rapidly evolve to meet industry standards, these hidden gems help students gain the expertise needed to enter many lucrative and in demand industries.

Apprenticeships/Internships. I think we can all agree that few classroom experiences can truly parallel the demands of the workforce. For those which require hands-on learning, apprenticeships can provide intimate, first-hand skill-building. Likewise, as even entry-level jobs now require some sort of professional experience, internships are also a great opportunity to build one’s resume while exploring the nuances of a career pathway

Gap Year. The idea of a gap year can come with romanticized ideas of backpacking through Europe, but this option comes in all shapes and sizes. Whether travel, volunteering, or simply taking time off to consider and pursue next steps, stepping back to try something new can be an invaluable experience. And, considering the increasing demands on young people, a year to explore new activities may be the physical and mental health break that is needed.

The Armed Forces. Depending on the branch and professional interests, military service is a cost-effective way to gain real world experience, earn a salary, and set yourself up to access educational funding. While the military is certainly not for everyone, many have found the organization and structure is the right professional and educational fit for them to thrive.

What can parents, allies, and educators do to encourage more diverse career exploration?

1. Avoid implying there is any “one” or “right” pathway to success. Each person is unique, and some adults change jobs and careers several times throughout their lives.

2. Realize that there are jobs and industries that do not even exist yet. So, encourage developing a diversity of skillsets and experiences that are transferrable between jobs and industries.

3. Highlight both the successes and challenges you or others faced on your professional journey. Be honest about struggles and lessons learned while also celebrating accomplishments.

4. Affirm that all jobs and professions have equal and inherent value to society. Pursuing prestigious credentials or a professional title is no guarantee for career success or financial security

5. As my mother said to me, “Money does not buy happiness…and neither does poverty.” Don’t underestimate the value of economic stability and minimal debt when pursing a profession.

6. Explain that job satisfaction comes from a variety factors that have nothing to do with job title or profession. Organizational culture, supervisors, coworkers, schedule, commute, and after-hours expectations can all vastly impact what might seem the perfect career on paper.

7. Reconsider the ole adage, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Simply put, some passions are best reserved for recreation, leisure, and reprieve from the daily routine.

Whether aspiring to graduate as a Doctor of Philosophy, lead a women-owned mechanic shop, or enter local government, all pathways and experiences can teach invaluable personal and professional lessons. Instead of relying on hearsay or a standardized one-size-fits-all model, let’s engage our young people in these conversations as both a teacher and learner to help them acquire the curiosity, skills, and confidence to proudly pursue their individual pathway to success.

Liz Vocasek, M.Ed., has studied and worked in educational institutions of all types in the United States and abroad. She approaches her work at Liz Vocasek Coaching & Consulting from an inclusive teacher/learner perspective and loves partnering with people of all backgrounds and ages seeking a true and authentic pathway to success.

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