Like nearly every young person, I was asked this question repeatedly while growing up, and for a brief period of time I thought I knew the answer. The only job I could see myself doing for the rest of my life involved finding lost treasure and chasing down bad guys. I thought the work uniform for this occupation consisted of a leather jacket, a fedora hat, and a bullwhip on the hip. Job benefits included lots of world travel and always getting the girl. That's right, I wanted to be an archeologist - Indiana Jones style. Dim the houselights and cue the John Williams movie score.
Well, I never did become an archeologist or an accountant, but isn't it normal for people to imagine growing up and working their dream job, only to grow up and be perfectly content working in a completely different occupation? Experts who help teenagers plan their careers agree this is often the case, but there is no way to really measure how often people change their career plans. The best way to find out what career goals people are starting with is by asking them early on in their careers.
Through her role at the high school's career center, Meg helps young people begin their career development. The Oregon State Board of Education recently changed the state's high school graduation requirements beginning with the graduating class of 2010. As part of the change, students are now required to receive career-related education and experience in order to graduate. These requirements are designed to increase a student's career maturity and their ability to be successful in their chosen career.
When students are just beginning their career exploration, their first response to the question is often a career that has a certain appeal. Kilmer lists video game designer, veterinarian, fashion designer, and fire fighter as the most popular career goals of today's high school students - at least early on in their career exploration. At Parkrose, students can meet part of their required career exploration requirement through workplace field trips, internships, or a four-hour job shadow of someone at their workplace. According to Kilmer, the goal of the career exploration is to get students to look at occupations from a different point of view.
Career goals can be heavily influenced by culture and surroundings. For example, some of Kilmer's students are interested in careers in forensic science because of the popularity of television police dramas like CSI. Getting some outside experience and knowledge about an occupation helps students get a better understanding of a job's requirements, which sometimes causes them to change their plans. "Most students interested in CSI don't really want to major in chemistry," she says, which is usually required for a career in forensic science. Once they realize this, many students end up looking into something else.
According to Kilmer, students have an inkling of what their skills are and end up using their skills throughout their career. Her tips for high school students are:
- Know thyself, and
- Learn about the world of work
Knowing yourself and being honest about your likes and dislikes will help you find a career that you find rewarding. Learning about the world of work helps you gain the skills that will help you be successful at your chosen career.
The world of work is ever changing and there is no way to tell what sort of working world today's teens will create. A lot of grownups work in industries that did not even exist when they were in high school. Kilmer recommends that students develop their soft skills, things like how to think, write, speak, play nice, and how to take personal responsibility. These skills will always be in demand.
Although learning about career development is important for young people, perhaps having a surefire answer to the big question is not essential. "If people ask you what you want to be when you grow up," advises Kilmer "say happy."
"I prepare them to go out and look for work," says Martinez. He gets students to start thinking about careers and gives them the information they need to make informed decisions. "Otherwise they are just throwing a dart and not knowing where it will land."
Martinez shows students how to find information about different occupations, how to write a résumé, and the importance of giving good interviews. "Most of them have heard it all before, either from their parents or teachers," he says. Sometimes it just helps to have someone who works closely with businesses reemphasize the importance of these skills.
Among the students that Martinez talks with, high tech jobs are still popular. Other popular occupations are engineers, video game designers, pediatricians, police officers, and firefighters. "I rarely hear about interest in retail or food service jobs," says Martinez about some of the less popular career goals. "A lot of these kids don't realize though that they can make a living being a welder."
As he gives students the knowledge to make informed career decisions, Martinez imparts these four bits of advice:
- Knowledge is power
- Time is money
- You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and
- Skills pay the bills
The knowledge refers to career information. Time implies that teens need to be planning now for their careers. The first impression refers to having an attractive résumé and being prepared for interviews. The skills that pay the bills refer to the technical skills that are needed in most occupations, as well as the all important soft skills such as customer service and how to be a "people person."
Martinez encourages parents to give their teens all the career information they can and to encourage their teens to go out and get that first job. "This will get them exposed to those soft skills they need to be competitive in the workforce," he adds.
Of the nearly 200 responses from students, one-fifth are considering careers in the health care industry, such as becoming doctors, nurses, or physical therapists. Another fifth of the students are thinking about occupations relating to the arts, such as photographers, actors, or athletes. One-tenth of the students are interested in becoming teachers. The other 50 percent of the students have career goals that span the occupational alphabet from accountant to zoologist.
Categorizing the career goals of teenagers is no easy task. Many students who are obviously wrestling with the big questions (or planning multiple careers) listed more than one occupation. One student displayed a broad range of career interests by putting down 'veterinarian technician/photographer/counseling psychologist' as a career goal. Another wrote down "I want to take over the world (or be a writer)." A comedy writer perhaps?
The students' responses reveal what careers a small sample of Oregon students are thinking about, but the variety does not represent the type of jobs currently in Oregon's economy. Graph 1 shows the students' mix of occupational goals by broad category. Graph 2 shows Oregon's current occupational mix.
The students show a strong interest in professional and health care related occupations. Currently, those jobs make up less than a quarter of the statewide total. Some common occupations do not seem to be popular with the students, such as those in office support or production.
Table 1 shows some of the popular career goals from the survey, along with projected annual openings, average wages, and minimum educational requirements. The occupations that are popular with today's teenagers tend to pay well and require a lot of education. Some of the occupations, such as postsecondary teachers and accountants, will have a lot of openings in the near future. Others, such as forensic scientist and fashion designer, will have far fewer openings when today's teens are ready to apply.
Career Goals of Oregon High School Students
Tend to be High Paying and Require Education and Training
|Applications Software||287||$88,643||Bachelor's degree|
|Systems Software||64||$104,005||Bachelor's degree|
|Fashion Designer*||24||$66,544||Bachelor's degree|
|Fire Fighter||132||$52,248||Postsecondary training|
|Forensic Scientist||11||$57,887||Bachelor's degree|
|Physician or Surgeon*||371||$180,390||Professional degree|
|Police Officer||179||$59,088||On-the-job training|
|High School||435||$52,919||Bachelor's degree|
|* Self-employment is estimated to be 10% or greater for this occupation|
|Source: Oregon Employment Department and Bureau of Labor Statistics|
"I know being an entrepreneur will be hard when I'm young," Federico acknowledges, "but then it should get easier as I get older." In school, he participates in an advisory period as part of the career-related learning requirement. Students in the class plan their futures by writing down goals each year and seeing if they've met the previous year's goals. "It helps to keep you on track," explains Federico.
While the young entrepreneur learns about business from his dad and discusses career options with friends, he is also getting hands-on career experience by working a variety of jobs. Although he's only about to start his junior year, Federico has already worked jobs mowing lawns, fixing tractors, being a waiter, and detailing cars. His future plans may not yet be set in stone, but the fact that he is already working on will help to ensure his success.
When Meg Kilmer was in high school, she wanted to be a journalist. In a way she is a very specialized journalist, reporting the latest career news to an audience of students and parents who need the information. She still writes for her school newsletter, proving you can use the skills you developed as a youth in any career.
When Lonnie Martinez was in high school, he really had no idea what he wanted to be. While working as a dishwasher in a restaurant he noticed that the cook was respected for his culinary expertise. Martinez decided to become a cook, which he did for a few years. He is now respected for his expertise about local businesses and the local labor force.
Now the final question remains: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"