Monday, 25 March 2013

Kids and careers

I just read an article about a new program in Ontario aimed at helping high school students decide what they want to do after they graduate. The writer references a census done by the Toronto District School Board that shows 73 percent of its grades 9 to 12 students say they are worried about their future. Some of the causes of students’ worries noted in the article are Canada’s high youth unemployment rate (nearly double the national average), the cost of post-secondary education and level of debt college and university students graduate with, and lack of labour market information and supports. It is the latter that the new program aims to address.

What really caught my attention, though, was a poll embedded in the article. The question was ‘Is kindergarten too early to start discussing a child’s career choice?’ I had to rub my eyes and reread the question but yes, that’s what it said. I then clicked on the ‘view results’ button and, not surprisingly, 82% of readers who responded to the pool chose ‘yes, kindergarten is too early to start discussing a child’s career choice’ while 18% responded it was not too early. I count myself among the 82% for a number of reasons not the least of which is that four and five-year olds simply do not have the experience or vocabulary to engage in conversations about careers. That being said, exposing children to a variety of careers can be helpful when it comes to those conversations and making decisions later in life. When I was in elementary school, I remember going on field trips to the police station, the symphony, the firefighters’ hall, among other places. The people who worked at those places talked to us about their background and day-to-day work and sometimes we were even given some hands-on activities, like sliding down the fire pole. Yipee!

I would support exposing children to careers in this and other ways not just so they can learn there is more out there besides teacher and what mom and dad do, but also to breakdown stereotypes about work that are based on gender, class and other factors (e.g. making sure they hear from both female and male firefighters when they visit the fire hall). However, I can’t see how asking very young children to think and talk seriously about their own career can be all that helpful. What probably prompted the writer to include the poll in the article was a comment made by someone who works for the organization that facilitates the new program. Commenting on the cost of the program, which will be about $1,000 per student, she said, “It’s better to pay a little up front and know your child is making the right decisions than pay for four years of university and have your child say I’m in the wrong program.” What this fails to recognize is: (1) when you ask workers if they are doing what they thought they would be doing when they were 18 the vast majority will say ‘no’ and (2), as people grow (e.g. experience new things, develop new knowledge and skills) their career aspirations shift. So it is not surprising that many – not all – university students change programs or otherwise alter their career plans during a time of their life when they are doing a lot of discovery learning. As John Krumboltz and Al Levin, authors Luck is no accident (one of my favourite career planning books) write, asking a young person to make a commitment to an occupation they haven’t even tried out - and expecting them to stick with their decision - is like asking them to choose their future spouse before the first date!

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