Partnering for Success : Getting Involved in Your Child's Career Planning, Defining College Goals

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Getting Involved in Your Child’s Career Planning

If you are a boomer or post-boomer-era parent, you probably have some reservations about playing a part in your child’s career decision making. You believe in freedom of occupational choice. You reject a European-style system of education in which young people take a test at age 16 to determine whether they will go to university or into vocational training.

Because of this, you don’t place much emphasis on career planning in high school. You believe that should happen later, when your child is in college. You don’t want anyone—yourself or others—to pressure advanced students into premature decision making. You don’t want anyone to suggest that students with lower academic skills settle for less than a four-year degree. You question whether any eighteen-year-old can make an informed career choice, as many of the jobs he will hold have yet to be created. You believe that all young people should have the chance for higher education and all young people, especially your child, deserve a second chance. And you are willing to commit your tax dollars, as well as your personal savings, to fund these efforts.

At the same time, you are worried about money.

One year at a four-year private college now costs approximately $40,000 in tuition, fees, room and board and books. One year at a state’s main, flagship public institution now costs approximately $20,000.

This means that you, as a parent, are looking at a $160,000 investment in private education or an $80,000 investment in public education for your child to earn a four-year bachelor’s degree. This is provided your child can finish a degree in just four years. You are aware that the cost of college has exceeded the rate of inflation for the past 20 years, and you believe college costs will continue to increase. You know that students cobble together financial-aid packages to reduce the sticker price of college, but you also know that students and their families are borrowing money at increasingly high interest rates to pay for a college degree.

Because of all this, you feel torn. You want your child to be free to make his own choices, but you know poor choices are expensive. You are eager for your child to go to college, but you also want your child to finish in a timely manner. Your long-term economic goal is for your child to become an independent adult who has a good job and is self-supporting. But how is this supposed to happen? If you, as a parent, should keep your hands off when it comes to guiding your child’s career choice, how is that career choice to be made?

Your answer, if you are like most boomer-era parents, is “by going to college.” You believe that college is the place your child will find himself. If you just get your child into the right college, everything, including a good job, will all work out.

If the economy today worked the way it did when you were in school, this would be a reasonable expectation. Thirty or forty years ago, anyone could roll out of college with any major and expect to land a good job with benefits. The U.S. economy was structured to absorb unfocused college graduates. Management ranks were expanding. Companies were willing to bring young people into organizational hierarchies, train them to accomplish organizational goals, and move them up the corporate ladder. These companies offered stable jobs with good benefit packages.

Consider Jeff’s experience.

Jeff graduated from State U with good grades and a bachelor’s degree in history in 1975. His work experience included editing the sports section of the student newspaper, managing a public swimming pool, and working as an orderly at a hospital during the academic year.

At the beginning of his senior year in college, Jeff went to the career placement center on campus. This was the office where seniors went to find jobs. He signed up for eight on-campus interviews. Five of these interviews were for “manager trainee” positions with local companies and national corporations; two of these interviews were for administrative positions with large government agencies hiring for their expanding regional offices. All the job opportunities had good starting salaries and comprehensive benefit plans.

Jeff was hired by a regional telephone company as an accounting office supervisor. This was a first-line management position. Jeff had no formal training in business. He was part of a group of new hires that included five women and two men, all of whom had college degrees. Jeff later learned the company was under pressure to hire women for management-training positions. The company had been fined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for paying male manager trainees more than female manager trainees for doing the same job in the 1960s. Jeff was assigned to the data processing unit, where he was trained to supervise 12 clerical employees processing daily service orders for the company. He saw his first computer, an IBM 360/60, which occupied a space the size of an executive office suite today.

Jeff acknowledges that there would be no way he would qualify for the same job opportunity right out of college today. Deregulation of the industry, technological changes, and fierce competition in the telecommunications industry have completely changed the hiring landscape in Jeff’s organization.

Jeff’s company is no longer looking for liberal arts graduates to train to “do it their way.” His company is looking for a few select college graduates who can “hit the ground running.” These candidates must have excellent grades in a business, finance, or computer information systems major and proven work experience in a corporate setting in order to qualify for an entry-level job comparable to the one Jeff was offered 35 years ago.

How can you help your child navigate this changed job market? If you can no longer assume that a college degree, any degree, will guarantee a foothold in today’s economy, what can you do to help your child get focused?

Defining College Goals

You can start by getting your expectations out on the table. You can clarify in your own mind why you are sending your child to college in the first place. What does it mean to “find yourself” in college? How is this similar to or different from finding an initial career?

If you attended college, you may believe that “finding yourself” means expanding intellectually. You remember being inspired by dynamic instructors and energized by new ideas. Many college professors and other college personnel, most of whom liked school, share this definition of “finding yourself.”

If you did not attend college, or if you dropped out, you may feel you were overlooked for career advancement because you lacked a college degree. You feel you were passed over for promotions because you didn’t have “the piece of paper” to get ahead. You want your child to go to college to avoid your own employment fate.

You may think of “finding yourself” as a social experience. You remember college as the beginning of lifelong friendships. You want your child to make good friends in college and lay the groundwork for social and business networks later on.

You may define “finding yourself” as finding a cause or purpose in life. You remember college as a time of idealism and activism. College, for you, should be about energizing political discussions and collective social action.

You may see “finding yourself” as mastering independent life skills. You remember the sense of accomplishment that came from attending college away from home and meeting the challenges of getting along with roommates, balancing work and study, and managing money.

All of these are ways young people can and do find themselves in college. In an ideal college experience, one that develops the whole student, all of these self-discoveries take place.

But none of these experiences of finding yourself guarantees your child will find a good job. None of these expectations, if met, will assure that your child will leave college with the education and work experience needed to be marketable in a satisfying first career.

The fact is, few people find themselves, career-wise, in college. Ask any of your friends, “Are you working in your college field of study today?” Chances are they will laugh. Except for your friends who majored in professional majors like accounting, education, nursing, or pre-med, most of your friends did not find their career focus while in college. That happened later, by hit or miss, as your friends rolled out into the world and began their careers.

You need to move this process up in time to help your child get focused while he is in college and not just after graduation. Your child will enter a completely different economy than the one you and your friends entered back in the day. You cannot assume that your child will land on his feet just because he has a college degree. Without the right combination of education and relevant work experience, your child may leave college with few marketable skills and loaded with student-loan debt.

If your child is a strong student and you are reading this article, chances are you are well on your way to helping your child develop an academic plan. You took pride in your child’s academic success in grade school and high school. You made sure your child signed up for honors courses and prepared for the SAT.

If your child is an average or weak student and you are reading this article, chances are you are worried about his success after high school. You want to do everything you can do now to help.

No matter what kind of student your child is in high school or college, now is the time to step back and spend the same amount of time you spent thinking about college preparedness thinking about career preparedness. If you want your child to find a satisfying first career, one that allows him to be financially independent and get on with adult life, you need to teach your child how to move from “undecided” and “unfocused” to “ready” and “prepared.” This is true whether your child is an honors student or one who is “bored stiff” with high school.

Career success doesn’t happen automatically. It doesn’t happen without a plan. There are steps for getting from point A to point B. Your role as a parent is to be a resource to your child. Your job is to help your child identify other resources available to him that will move him forward into adult life.

So, if you believe it is OK for you to help your child with career planning, where do you begin? How do you help your child start the career-planning process in a constructive way?

Parent Tip 1

To be effective in helping your child with career planning, keep in mind the difference between guidance and control. Guidance is helping your child identify her strengths and connect those strengths to opportunities in the economy. Control is dictating your child’s career choice. Guidance is helping your child get firsthand information about the opportunities that are out there. Control is doing the research yourself. Guidance is saying, “I want you to talk to two engineers before you reject an engineering major.” Control is saying, “I won’t pay for college unless you major in engineering.”

Parent Tip 2

Like most well meaning adults, you have probably asked your child, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Because of this question, many young people resist any career-planning activities suggested by their parents. They fear they are being forced into making a choice they will be stuck with for the rest of their life. They feel they are being asked to decide, once and for all, what they are going to “be.”

As a parent, you need to take the pressure off the career-planning process. You need to help your child separate career information gathering from career decision making. All you are asking your child to do at this point is gather information. You are not asking her to make a decision based on that information. Encourage your child to see herself as an objective journalist who is conducting research, interviewing people, and observing work environments. She can decide what she wants to do with this information later on.

Parent Tip 3

A college plan is not a career plan. “Where am I going to college?” and “How am I going to pay for it?” are different questions from “How am I going to support myself when I am out of college?”

In the past, a college plan was a career plan. Young adults could graduate from college and expect a college-level job with college-level pay just because they had a degree.

Times have changed. The economy has changed. Help your child develop a plan for an entry-level career after graduation. This career plan doesn’t have to be in place on the front end of the college experience, but it can no longer wait until your child leaves college if you expect your child to pay back student loans.

A bachelor’s degree does not entitle you to a dream job with good pay. It is an important first step on the road to a dream job with good pay. Help your child develop realistic expectations about employment after graduation and a workable plan to get established and get ahead.

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